This is a follow-up dialogue with my friend, atheist Anthrotheist, concerning my recent article, “Seidensticker Folly #13: God Hasta Prove He Exists!” Seidensticker stated (as recorded in that paper):
Let’s make clear what compelling evidence for God would look like. This wouldn’t simply be the clouds parting one day just as you wondered if God existed. It wouldn’t be unexpectedly coming across a photo of a beloved relative who had died. I’m talking about something really compelling—something like everyone in the world having the same dream the same night in which God simply and clearly summarizes his plan. Could that be dismissed as alien technology or mind-control drugs rather than God? Perhaps, but this evidence would be vastly more compelling than the feeble arguments apologists are saddled with today.
Anthrotheist’s words will be in blue.
I’m trying to pin down the dream example’s basic premises, as they apply to evidence of God’s existence. The best I can come up with is:
1. The event is (mostly) universal. Everyone in the world has the same dream on the same night, which means that at least a large part of half the world had the dream at the same time (given that the other half would hear about it before their day was over).
2. The event is unprecedented. Presumably, the dream plays out in exactly the same manner (thus being the exact same dream) all over the world. It doesn’t fit any particular cultural expectations nor resemble any particular history, legend, or fable.
3. The event is consistent across cultures. Similar to number two, but more how it is interpreted; while the meaning (and certainly the portent) of the dream will vary depending on the culture, the dream itself is independently identical everywhere. It’s like everyone in a room can come up with different explanations for why there is a giant cat walking around, but everyone is definitely seeing the same tiger.
4. The event has God at its center. There’s no cloud of symbolism or metaphor, no obtuse and cryptic language employed; as Bob said, “…God simply and clearly summarizes his plan.” There’s no way to mistake God for something or someone else, and there’s nothing obfuscating the message (at least its transmission, there can always be confusion in its reception).
Taken together, it would defy scientific explanation. No drug, technology, technique, illness, nor combination of any or all of those things is sufficient to explain the phenomenon. It’s certainly possible to rationalize it, ignore it, or deny it, but that would be rarer outliers. Over time, if nothing else similar happened ever again and no amount of investigation produced any reasonable explanation, it is easy to imagine that people would wonder less about it as they moved on with their day-to-day lives. The next generation, who never experienced it, would have all the stories and passions from the people who were there when it happened. A hundred years later, there would be records of it. It would be hard to deny that it happened, given it’s world-wide scope, but it would be easier as time passed to discredit it as being any particular God, and without any repeat of it perhaps even being from a God at all.
The points Bob probably intended to counter seem clear. Christianity emerged in one tiny part of the world, and nowhere else on Earth are the same stories told. Christianity emerged from existing cultures and religions, with many of its stories closely resembling older legends familiar to the area (but again, unheard of elsewhere in the world). All the world religions have similar histories, and all of them have followers that have subjective experiences of their god(s). This example would fairly well defy any of them, including but not exclusive to Christianity.
Well, I can agree that if this actually happened, it would be compelling for a lot of people (even ultra-skeptic / hyper-rationalist Bob, who suggested it!). I’m interested in the deeper questions, though (and I think we could potentially have some interesting dialogue concerning these matters):
1) What is an objective measure by which one can determine that “x amount of evidence” is sufficient for Person A (ostensibly atheist) or, all people, to believe in God’s existence? On what [objective / rational] basis is such a claim made?
2) If that question is answered, how does the person who holds it apply it (logically and epistemologically) to all other human beings?
3) How do two people even have a rational discussion about how much evidence — and what sort — is required to believe in God? What are the criteria or framework within which such a discussion takes place?
These are mainly rhetorical questions and perhaps ultimately unanswerable (at least in certain senses) for those on either side, but I think they indicate the complexity of this issue. It’s not simple or easy at all. I think you are the sort of atheist who can have (and is willing to have) this conversation, because you don’t come around mocking and condescending and assuming that the Christian is an idiot, who has no legitimate reasons whatsoever for his or her views.
As I noted in my earlier paper, Christians believe that God has indeed already sufficiently revealed Himself, so that speculations about what He “must” or “ought to” do, from atheists, are a bit comical and beside the point, from our perspective. These proposals presuppose that God hasn’t revealed Himself at all, or insufficiently for all people, or for thinking / more educated people, etc. We think He has, through and in what He has made (tied in — for thinking, philosophically astute Christians — to the teleological and cosmological arguments):
Romans 1:19-20 (RSV) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. . . .
Now, of course, the atheist says, “who cares about that? It’s just the Bible saying what we would expect it to say; but it’s circular reasoning to cite the Bible to prove the Bible . . .” For my part, I’m not trying to prove the point at the moment, so I’m not engaged in circular reasoning or begging the question. I’m simply reporting (sociologically) what Christians believe. We believe that the Bible is God’s inspired revelation, on many other grounds, and so we accept what it teaches, including this passage.
How we would flesh out Romans 1 philosophically would be to utilize the teleological and cosmological arguments. But I’d like to highlight the thought in Romans 1 in particular. Is it true that the thinking person can simply view the universe and the marvels of science and have a rational basis for thinking that it suggests God or some sort of Higher Power (either personal or impersonal) or “organizing / creative principle” (or whatever way one would like to describe it)? I submit that some very great minds (and not Christian minds) have indeed had that reaction.
David Hume was a deist (not an atheist: as is wrongly assumed by many). It is thought that he dismantled the teleological argument. But many good Hume scholars maintain that he disposed of merely one form of it: not all forms. He appears to offer support for my contention, from Romans 1, that the observable world bears witness to God’s existence:
The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind. (Treatise, 633n)
Wherever I see order, I infer from experience that there, there hath been Design and Contrivance . . . the same principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect from the Infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole fabric of the universe. (Letters, 25-26)
The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion . . .
Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system . . .
All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author. (Natural History of Religion, 1757, edited by H. E. Root, London: 1956, 21, 26)
That is a philosophical argument (not a religious / theological one), tying into scientific observation, from a non-Christian philosopher of great repute, in general, and among atheists. And it precisely (rather spectacularly, I would say) backs up what St. Paul states, in the Bible, in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans.
As my second corroborating example, I submit Albert Einstein, who was some sort of pantheist (“God is everything”) or panentheist (“God is in everything”) — assuredly not an atheist –, but who backs up to a significant degree, the thought that Paul expresses in Romans 1 and that Christians believe (in faith, but backed up by philosophy). I’ve collected many of his statements concerning religion and the marvels of the universe. Here are several of those (further detailed source information is provided in that paper):
My comprehension of God comes from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world. In common terms, one can describe it as ‘pantheistic’ (Spinoza). (1923)
My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God. (1927)
Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious. (1927)
I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, . . . (1929)
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man. . . . Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, . . . (1930)
I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. (1930)
[E]veryone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, . . . (1936)
Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source . . . They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres. (1941)
In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views. (c. 1941)
My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as “laws of nature.” It is this consciousness and humility I miss in the Freethinker mentality. (1954)
[see also, Chapter Ten of my book, Science and Christianity: Close Partners or Mortal Enemies? (2010, 301 pages) ]
This is essentially what we Christians are contending, in using Romans 1 as a starting-point for our thought. Hume and Einstein back it up: it’s rational to look out at the universe and conclude that it suggests (and beyond that: basically proves) that God (or something beyond mere matter) exists. The teleological argument is not dead at all. I would say, to the contrary, that it is more compelling than ever, based on our increasingly detailed observations of the wonders of the universe. I opined, in my paper about Einstein’s religious views:
If even rigorous philosophical and scientific minds like David Hume and Einstein look at the universe and immediately sees some sort of Intelligence behind it (though not the Christian God), surely there is something to even Paul’s assertion of the “plainness” of God’s existence, in Romans 1. . . .
Now, I would ask an atheist: whence comes Einstein’s “deeply felt conviction”? Is it a philosophical reason or the end result of a syllogism? He simply has it. It is an intuitive or instinctive feeling or “knowledge” or “sense of wonder at the incredible, mind-boggling marvels of the universe”. Atheists don’t possess this intuition, but my point is that it is not utterly implausible or unable to be held by even the most rigorous, “non-dogmatic” intellects, such as Einstein and Hume. And the atheist has to account for that fact somehow, it seems to me.
And, following such thought, this is why we think it is unnecessary for some extraordinary demonstration to take place, in order for God to prove that He exists, to the satisfaction of every atheist. He already has done so. Why atheists have somehow missed it, is the mystery for us: not why God hasn’t done something that there is no need for Him to do.
Photo credit: NASA image from the Hubble Space Telescope (4-23-12). Star-forming region 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula because its glowing filaments resemble spider legs. The nebula is located in the neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud, and is one of the largest star-forming regions located close to the Milky Way. At the center of 30 Doradus, thousands of massive stars are blowing off material and producing intense radiation along with powerful winds. The Chandra X-ray Observatory detects gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by these stellar winds and also by supernova explosions. These X-rays, colored blue in this composite image, come from shock fronts–similar to sonic booms–formed by this high-energy stellar activity. The Hubble data in the composite image, colored green, reveals the light from these massive stars along with different stages of star birth, including embryonic stars a few thousand years old still wrapped in cocoons of dark gas. Infrared emission data from Spitzer, seen in red, shows cooler gas and dust that have giant bubbles carved into them. These bubbles are sculpted by the same searing radiation and strong winds that comes from the massive stars at the center of 30 Doradus. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]