Question: “Who is God?”
Answer: “God is the supreme being who made all things.”
This question-response bit from Catholic catechism classes in my youth was repeatedly drilled into my consciousness (and, thus, subconsciousness), which is certainly part of the reason I still remember it so readily more than a half-century later.
I had no idea at the time, of course, but it was a set-up to distract me from Christianity’s primary — fatal, I would suggest — weakness: it’s inherent circularity.
By circularity, I mean the circular argument that underlies all Christian apologetics. Which is to say, “A is true because A is true.” It can be characterized as: “Because God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, everything we say about him must be true.”
However, for the last clause in that sentence to be logically true, the two preceding it must be verifiably true, but those can’t be confirmed.
The problem, as always with Christianity, as with any religion with supernatural deities, is that there is simply no possible way to irrefutably verify gods or their attributes because they are by definition beyond all human sensory perception much less physical access. There’s just no way to verify.
Yet, for many millennia now, verify we do (or, rather, attempt).
I was reminded of this endless problem today while reading an engrossing New York Times op-ed article by San Diego State University philosophy professor Peter Atterton, titled “A God Problem: Perfect. All-Powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.”
Atterton introduces a number of godly creations that would seem inconsistent with our idea of supreme godliness, such as the existence of evil, forces of nature that are immutable (in other words, ones even God presumably can’t change), and human free will, to name three. Arguments for each quickly and inescapably become circular and therefore invalid.
For example, the fact that evil exists in the world has posed a philosophical conundrum for so long that it’s by now almost a cliché. But that’s partly because it proposes excellent and intellectually fair questions about supernatural faith that have had vibrant staying power in religious discourse.
“For example, can God create a world in which evil does not exist?” Atterton asks rhetorically in the article. “This does appear to be logically possible. Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction. It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same. Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world. So why didn’t He?”
Noting that the time-honored defense says evil is required for free will to operate properly, Atterton quotes prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga:
“To create creatures capable of moral good, [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.”
However, Atterton suggests, “this does not explain so-called physical evil (suffering) caused by nonhuman causes (famines, earthquakes, etc.).”
Atterton also quotes evolution pioneer Charles Darwin to point out that simple common sense also suggests a lie in the Christian conception of a perfect divinity that embodies evil:
“A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?”
How unconvincingly convenient that the existence of such a terrible reality as unnecessary suffering, often purposefully inflicted, can be glibly chalked up to divine necessity by apologists even though how such philosophical contortionism logically works is impossible to divine, so to speak.
The only way such apologetics can be logically presumed is by circular reasoning: Because God is the supreme being who made all things, he can decree anything he wishes, including evil as not only not evil but actually essential for good.
Indeed, to slightly rework the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes (and the Byrds’ folk song “Turn! Turn! Turn! To Everything There is a Season.”), Christians believe there is a reason. rather than a season, for every purpose (however remotely improbable) under heaven.
Except there isn’t. There very much appears to be only reasons for every purpose under the laws of nature, not under the dome of the divine.
I would apply here the medieval principle of (William) Occam’s Razor, which holds that one shouldn’t make more assumptions than absolutely necessary. And to a rationalist eye, “God” seems very much unnecessary to explain the real world we live in; in fact, it overly complicates almost everything.
In my understanding of this principle as applied to omnipotent supernatural divinities, it would be immediately clear that such a being not only could and would — but, as a moral necessity, should — create a world devoid of suffering.
So, if suffering exists in the world, it’s source must logically be something other than a purported omnibenevolent deity.
In other words, as the cartoon character Pogo once famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”