26
Jan

Is Believing in God Like Believing in Dragons?

imagesSkeptics will often attribute their doubts to a lack of “evidence.” But what they mean by evidence is often markedly different from the kind of definition used every day in a court of law. Whether evidence is believable or admissible are of course different matters; but generally speaking, evidence is anything with a tendency to prove or disprove the matter at issue. It could be a statement, an artifact left at a crime scene, circumstances which establish a motive for a crime. The list in endless.  The skeptic does not prove his point by simply claiming that Christian truth claims lack what he considers to be “evidence.”

Many times, the skeptic will shift gears, claiming that different types of evidence are needed for “everyday phenomena” than for supernatural ones. As one person put it:

“Normally, hearsay or anecdotal evidence, what someone else tells you rather than what you see with your own eyes, or can at least theoretically test for yourself, can be accepted as good evidence for everyday phenomena. If you tell me you have a car in your garage I will believe you. But if you tell me you have a dragon in your garage, I will not believe you, without some very very good evidence indeed. Probably in the end I would only really be convinced by seeing the dragon with my own eyes- and even then, I’d want X-rays to rule out a robot. Wouldn’t you do the same, al? Jesus is the dragon in the garage. I understand how cool it would be to have a dragon in your garage, but I don’t see any, so I think it’s probably just wishful, or fearful, thinking.”

This is a clever counter, making use of a rhetorical device known as an appeal to ridicule.  Of course there can’t be a God, since “gods” are as silly a thing to believe in as fire-breathing dragons.  Jesus is just a myth, no more real than Santa.  By caricaturing Christianity to be a montage of strange concepts – eating “flesh and blood,” “virgin birth” and many other paradoxes – it is easy for the skeptic to conclude he is dealing with make-believe, without ever really considering the merits of the case.

Let’s take a closer look at what is at play when analogies to dragons or Santa are used.  My online dictionary defines dragon as:  “a mythical monster generally represented as a huge, winged reptile with crested head and enormous claws and teeth, and often spouting fire.” The word first appeared in the 12th Century, relating to some form of serpent. So, a dragon is a real creature – some type of serpent – transformed by the imagination into, well, an imaginary creature with magical powers. Dragons exist, of course – in the form of imagination. They are imaginary creatures. If I say I have one in my garage, I am not strictly speaking about what is in my garage, but what is in my imagination. In other words, if I tell you my imaginary friend Fred is talking to the dragon in my garage, then I’m telling you something about my imagination, not the contents of my garage.

What resemblance does this bear to Christian truth claims? From Genesis on forward, the Bible does not create magical or mythical creatures that we are to worship. There are no sun gods to bring forth bountiful harvests, no rain gods to irrigate the fields. There is, instead, a basic statement of origins: in the beginning was nothing, and from that nothing God created. Having limitless power, he used that power to do things – miracles including the resurrection – that ordinary mortals could not do.  This is a rather bold statement to make at a time when no knowledge of the Big Bang was available, and when the concept of an infinite universe would have made better sense than what we know today as the creation event. Moreover, whatever Jesus does in the gospels is portrayed in a factual, not fictitious, fashion; Jesus is never a superhero, coming to conquer and using lightning bolts from his wrists to subdue his enemies.  He does not fly through the skies as superman, calling others to bend to his every whim. No, he is a wise man, a gentle leader, a compassionate companion… who happens to be preaching a radical message of the coming of God’s kingdom, the need for repentance and reconciliation, the means for ultimate reunification with God.  However difficult it is to accept the teachings of Christianity, the difficulty does not arise because of some simplistic or mythical portrayal of Jesus.

The analogy to Santa is even easier to dissect.  Santa Claus is the supposed source of the gifts found under Christmas trees every Christmas morning. This explanation works for small children – giving them a wonderful period of anticipation and their parents a lever for a bit of behavior modification as kids struggle to remain on the “nice” list – but as a child matures he soon understands that no one person could possibly build and deliver an endless stream of worldwide gifts. Not to mention keeping straight who gets what. Santa is simply a form of superhero.

But backing up a bit, discovering that there is no Santa is not cause for concluding that there are no gifts under the tree, or that they appeared on their own. No, logic dictates that someone put the gifts there, someone with knowledge of the child, access to the home, and knowledge of the child’s wish list.

Finding an adequate explanation for the “presents under our tree” – the universe, a planet fine-tuned to support us, the existence of life, consciousness and intelligence, and of beauty and morality – should be the task of the skeptic. Which worldview has a better explanation for all this? Atheistic naturalism may have made sense in Darwin’s day, when the universe was thought to be infinite in duration and DNA was not even suspected as the reason life displays such ordered variation. But today, astrophysicists tell us that the universe arose from nothing 14 billion years ago – it began to exist, meaning something preceded it to set it in motion. Biologists seek to make sense of the tremendous body of information that is encoded in DNA. And information, of course, requires an intelligent source. But this is just a fraction of what needs to be explained: for instance, how can the atheist explain the origin of life? If even the simplest form of cellular life contains millions of lines of DNA code, believing that it magically assembled itself from inert matter is, well, just as difficult to swallow as Santa making it down the chimney.

The list of questions continues: where does human intelligence come from? Since we are interested in truth – the secularist doesn’t want to be misled with Santa stories, after all – how is truth grounded? Why isn’t it relative, like a person’s taste preferences? Why do we have free will? If the universe determines all outcomes, as the secularist believes, then the free will we all intuitively recognize we possess is simply an illusion.

In the end, it really does take more blind – uncritical -faith to accept the secular view. The Christian worldview, by contrast, holds that an infinite, personal and loving God created this universe, and us, for a purpose, and then revealed Himself to us in history. He did this in a way that provided evidence – largely in the form of personal testimony by witnesses who were so sure of what they saw and experienced that they suffered martyrdom rather than deny it.

It may take some work, but these truth claims are worth learning, and believing. Don’t relegate them, un-examined, to the realm of imagination. Too much is at stake for such a simplistic response.

Posted by Al Serrato

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13 Comments

  1. zilch says:

    This is as nicely stated a case for Christianity as I’ve ever seen: very clearly written and thoughtful. Kudos, and thanks for taking me, and these issues, seriously.

    One little factual error to clear up first- you say:

    “Atheistic naturalism may have made sense in Darwin’s day, when the universe was thought to be infinite in duration and DNA was not even suspected as the reason life displays such ordered variation.”

    I’m not aware of any scientific opinion in the 19th century that the Universe was infinitely old. On the contrary: most geologists and physicists, famously Lord Kelvin, thought the Earth couldn’t possibly be more that a few million years old. This was a problem for Darwin, who realized that more time was needed, and it wasn’t until the discovery of radioactive heating in the 20th century that scientists started revising the age of the Earth upwards.

    Sure, there were some crackpots such as Nietzsche who believed in an infinitely old (and repeating) Universe, but he was no scientist.

    About those dragons: your argument is not convincing, because you could trade “dragon” for “God” and it would work just as well, except for the incidental fact that God has different magical attributes than dragons. A dragon believer might say, for instance, that a God is a real creature, a father and chief, transformed into an imaginary figure, a God.

    The problem is, people make claims for magical beings and/or happenings all the time. Most of them must, since they’re mutually exclusive logically, be false, and it seems most parsimonious to say that all of them are false until proven otherwise. And the proof is not forthcoming.

    All the other stuff you wrote, about order and life and beauty, I’ve covered in previous posts here, and I don’t have time to repeat it all.

    cheers from cool vienna, zilch

  2. al says:

    Zilch,

    Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate the positive feedback, even if we remain at our usual impasse.

    You say that “god” could be substittuted for “dragon,” but I don’t believe this is accurate. God is a conception which reason requires us to accept as real, not an imaginary creature. He is the adequate explanation for what we perceive as reality. He is where reason ultimately leads. Now, whether he is the personal, loving God of the Bible is a different issue. All I’m trying to establish is that “someone” adequate to the task of creation must be there. By comparing “god” to “dragon,” it appears that you are continuing to assume that God is just an imaginary creature, conjured up for whatever reason, but not real. So, you end up where you began – insisting that there is no “evidence” for something or somone you yourself cannot see.

    Thanks again for weighing in.

  3. zilch says:

    al- yep, I’m afraid we’re at our usual impasse again. Yes, I’m aware that there are differences between monotheistic gods and dragons. But as far as I can see, they’re matters of degree: dragons are conceived as being mighty, but not almighty.

    And yes- I assume, provisionally, that God is just an imaginary creature, conjured up for whatever reason, but not real- until I see evidence to the contrary. Don’t you believe yourself that people make up gods? Obviously, people have been making up gods and living and dying for them since time immemorial, and they’re still doing it. Thus, swearing on a stack of Bibles that the Bible is true is not very convincing to me. In order to believe in the Bible (or the Koran or whatever) I would want some pretty impressive substantiation: prayers answered in double-blind tests, for instance. Or evidence of a worldwide flood about five thousand years ago. And I don’t see any so far.

    Anyway, thank you too for being so courteous. Cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

  4. al says:

    Zilch,
    Yes, people make up “gods,” by which they mean “superheroes.” For instance, a rain god is useful for irrigation while a god a war can help me win a battle. “God” by contrast is a conceptual recognition of that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. Even without the revelation of the Bible, human reason leads to the recognition that such as being must necessarily exist. This was St. Anselm’s ontological argument. The difficulty in this dialogue is that you are defining God to mean “god” and not the “God.” This is why you conclude that “god” is like “dragon” – just a matter of degree. God is not like anything, because he and he alone is that supreme ultimate being a greater than which cannot be conceived.

    Spend a moment with that reflection. I really do hope you can tackle that particular part of the argument and not respond, as you have been doing, that “god” is like “dragon,” simply a matter of imagination.

  5. Brett Strong says:

    Hi Al, it’s Brett Strong

    This is how I easily handle (thus neutralize, defuse, make helpless) any god (creator of the universe) talk…it’s a hypothesis, theoretical thinking (period, that’s why its called in debates “the god hypothesis”)—from Christianity to Islam to Judaism to Hinduism to New Age to infinity of gods over history (like Zeus): it all hypothetical thinking/theoretical thinking and the buck stops there! No biggy!

    Akin to Space Aliens, Big Foot, & the Loch ness Monster—at the end of the day it’s all hypothetical thinking/theoretical thinking too!

    Even with all the so-called evidence one brings to the table be it for Space Aliens (blurry photos to alleged eyewitness testimony) or some god who created the universe (like W L Craig using the fine tuning argument), it still ends 100% of the time safely (non-threatening) in hypothetical /theoretical zone!

    Why?

    Because no one can bring Space Aliens before the world and say “look, here it is, a real live Space Alien” and likewise no can bring some alleged god of the universe before the world and say “look here’s the god who created the Big Bang”—thus all permanently remain in the same box of hypothetical thinking/theoretical thinking…

    This is why we have millions (1,000,000’s) of gods over history—because all god talk is hypothetical/theoretical (thus anyone can create their own god with their own god attributes and bingo you have a new god, happens all the time as you know Al)…and there’s really nothing other opposing god believers can do because all god talk is forever boxed in hypothetical thinking/theoretical thinking…

    Brett Strong…the internet skeptic taking on all comers…the human kryptonite to Christian Apologists dogmas…

    PS: I think it a mistake for atheists to try to prove there is no god…they can’t do it, not even logically….they should follow me, the truth, that all god talk is hypothetical thinking/theoretical thinking (akin to Space Alien talks)—and that there my friend is more than sufficient to DEFUSE-MAKE POWERLESS any PhD Christian apologist’s god dogma (like obey the bible, god is mad at you, you are a sinner, hell talk, obey bible morals, etc) from W L Craig to Gary Habermas to Mike Licona to all others…

    FYI: I am open to an ID (even Deism!), but hey, to be true to my worldview, at the end of the day, that too is hypothetical thinking/theoretical thinking…have a great day Al

    • Neal says:

      @ Brett

      Nice question begging argument you got there. All atheistic reasoning against some form of theism is hypothetical/theoretical too. See what I did there?

  6. Brett Strong says:

    One last thing Al, when one knows all god talk of any kind is 100% hypothetical, theoretical—not found in reality but in imaginative realm of the mind, then how can anyone be strong-armed into obeying or being scared of such a god (be it Christianity to Islam to Judaism to Hinduism to New Age to infinity of gods over history (like Zeus)) when that god like is identical to all gods—purely hypothetical, theoretical, or better said, imaginary…

    And that illumination, that all gods are, at its core, is imaginary/fantasy based, allows me to enjoy all religions—especially Christian music, which happens to be one of my favorite types of music

    Brett Strong strikes again…this is my beautiful (undefeatable) message to the world, that all gods (including the superhero NT Jesus) is purely hypothetical, theoretical, fantasy based, so enjoy them (or which ever religion you choose) like a nice movie and use your commonsense to live life …perfect…have a great day Al

  7. zilch says:

    al- yes, I’m familiar with Anselm’s Ontological Argument. Trouble is, it doesn’t prove the existence of anything, but merely sheds light on how words uncoupled from reality can lead to absurd constructions. Just because you can stack superlatives and get a supposed end point for them doesn’t mean that such an end point has existence. By Anselm’s reasoning, not only must God exist, but also the Greatest Ice Cream Sundae in the world. How big is the Greatest Ice Cream Sundae in the world?

  8. al says:

    Brett,
    Nice hearing from you again. I think it’s been about a year – where you slaying apologetic arguments elsewhere or did you take a break?

    Zilch,
    When you say the ontological argument supports believing in the greatest conceivable ice cream sundae, you are not actually attacking Anselm’s argument but revealing that you have not yet grasped what he is saying. It simply does not support such a claim. Anselm was not asking whether one could “imagine” fanciful things; he was asking whether reason leads to a conception of what God is, and if so, whether this use of reason should be viewed as reliable. It’s not the strongest of the proofs, but it is in my view the most interesting.

  9. zilch says:

    I beg to disagree, al. If you can conceive of an Ice Cream Sundae not existing, then obviously you are not conceiving of the Greatest Conceivable Ice Cream Sundae, which must of course not lack existence. Since you cannot conceive of the Greatest Ice Cream Sundae not existing, then it must exist. This is exactly the argument, just for a sundae and not for a god.

    And no, obviously the Ontological Argument is not reliable as far as producing truths about the real world goes.

    cheers from thawing Vienna, zilch

  10. al says:

    Zilch,
    You’re using “greatest conceivable” as a modifier where it does not belong. Anselm did not argue that if you could conceive of a thing, then its greatest conceivable version must also exist. This is foolishness, and hardly worth writing. Anselm’s point was that things have attributes which our reason allows us to recognize – food, for instance, is a conception, a category, encompassing all things that are edible and provide nourishment. This is not definitional – an ash tray does not become food simply by me calling it food. And we talk of “greatest conceivable” food, even though we recognize that food exists. When the mind considers the concept “God,” however, reason leads to the understanding that if it means anything at all, it means that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. This relates to God only. Not ice cream sundaes. You may think you are defeating Anselm’s argument with your sundae analogy, but you are simply demonstrating that you have not yet grasped his meaning.

    Glad to hear its thawing in Vienna.

    • zilch says:

      al- no, I’ve grasped Anselm’s meaning just fine. Anything can be plugged into his “greatest conceivable” slot and have its existence proven: god, ice cream sundaes, rainbows, galaxies, bugs… the only reason you (and Anselm) can only conceive of God being in that slot is because that’s how you define God and not ice cream sundaes.

      But that’s your parochial definition of God, as a “being greater than which cannot be deceived. If I define the Greatest Ice Cream Sundae as a “food greater than which cannot be conceived”, the argument applies exactly in the same way.

      You can’t use your definition of God to puff him into existence. You can’t pull yourself up by your imaginary bootstraps. Or if you can, then I can do the same for any being or food or object or concept i desire as well.

      As I said, the Ontological Argument is chiefly useful as a demonstration of how words decoupled from reality can come to imaginary conclusions.

      cheers from suddenly warm Vienna, zilch

  11. al says:

    Ironic, really, in that your last sentence, you essentially label the very thing you are doing. Another impasse, it seems. But in the end, defeating your straw man version of Anselm’s argument doesn’t defeat Anselm’s actual point. His argument remains valid, whether you choose to accept it as he framed it or not.

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