“It would be like believing in the postman”

“It would be like believing in the postman” July 7, 2010

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post.

This week’s Weatherwax quote is from Witches Abroad (a book I heartily recommend to everyone, but especially to the literary theorists who unexpectedly took over last week’s post on evolutionary psychology).  This week’s quote occurs in Pratchett’s voice as narrator.

Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

It always puzzles me that so much of the debate between theists and atheists centers on the question of God’s existence. It is difficult to imagine that the ancient Greeks spent a great deal of time affirming their belief in Athena and Ares. The gods were viewed as active (and sometimes destructive) forces in the lives of ordinary people. For them, the gods might be supernatural, but they were as real and observable as anyone else. (After all, as any fantasy series worth its salt will tell you, magic is only a matter of new rules and different models. Anything else is chaos).

Sometimes it feels like the frequent, passionate avowals of faith in God’s existence are themselves evidence of the distance, if not the nonexistence, of god in the modern era. Few things that actually exist (outside perhaps the realm of theoretical physics) prompt this much dispute.

I wonder, having just finished Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, how much of this shift to focusing on the existence of God, rather than the proper relationship to God is the logical result of the rise of monotheism. As far as I can tell, until the Jews began rejecting false idols, theological disputes were likely to be a matter of which set of deities were more powerful and dominant, not which ones existed at all.

The current rhetorical climate can be pretty hard on theists. Instead of having to argue simply that they have the best way to interface with the infinite, religious people now have to defend not only their own practice, but the entire edifice. Imagine the difficulty of proving that your headache cure was superior, when, instead of having to prove it worked better than the competition, you first had to debunk the view that headaches were impervious to physical cure.

Of course, in the headache example, the answer seems obvious. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’m fine with theists backing away from ontological existence arguments and trying to show God’s truth by showing his effects on the world instead. I’m just still waiting for a tenable framework for belief. Or a god whose presence and demands are as self-evident as those of the postman.

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