Is God a Myth?

thCA310QCVMany skeptics today view belief in God as roughly analogous to believing in unicorns, dragons or other mythic creatures. People have active imaginations, they conclude, and positing the existence of God is simply an expression wishful thinking, make believe, and imagination.

One skeptic, acknowledging the possibility that an impersonal creative “force” might exist, framed it this way:

“You are a Christian, and the God of the Christians is most definitely a unicorn.  That is of course, a unicorn in the sense of piecing together things you already know about: men and authority and magic.  Just as a unicorn is a kind of Superhorse, a god is a kind of Superman. Of course, none of this proves God- or unicorns- don’t exist.  I’m keeping my eyes open- time permitting- for both.”

This skeptic does not speak for all unbelievers, of course. But the presuppositions underlying his conclusions are fairly typical– indeed, I would say increasingly typical – of the “modern” worldview. Largely unexamined, these presuppositions lead such people into basic mistakes about the nature of reality, and about the kind of thinking that is necessary to getting a better understanding of this temporal universe, and our place in it.

Notice how the analogy works for this critic of Christianity. We all know intuitively that unicorns do not exist. If we examine why, we would probably base our conclusion on the belief that if such a creature did exist, someone, somewhere, would have located and photographed one. If we dig deeper, we would realize that a unicorn is, by definition, a “mythical creature resembling a horse, with a single horn in the center of its forehead: often symbolic of chastity or purity.” We reach the conception of “unicorn” in our minds by merging things we know about – horses and horns and ideas of purity – and manufacturing in our imaginations a creature that possesses these attributes.

The argument the skeptic is making goes something like this:

  1. We know that a unicorn is simply a “super” horse, a fictitious assembly of real things combined to make something imaginary;
  2. God, like unicorns, possesses  “super” powers;
  3. Consequently, God too is a construction of the imagination.

Teased out in this fashion, the flaw in the logic becomes more evident. The underlying assumption is that superpowers do not actually exist. They are always imaginary, meant to satisfy some need of the human mind. Since the Christian view attributes supernatural powers to God, it must be the case that Christians are simply using their imagination to build “something” that they feel they need: a savior to rescue them or a “father in the sky” to someday reward them.

But the existence, or not, of “super” powers is the thing under consideration. Assuming at the outset that no being possesses such powers simply because human beings do not is an example of circular reasoning. This approach will never add to one’s fund of knowledge because the inquiry concludes where it begins, with the assumption that no such being could exist.

Put another way, the skeptic is saying that anything that is imagined to possess extraordinary or “supernatural” qualities must be solely a product of the imagination. Imagination, on the one hand, and reality, on the other, are, under this view, at odds. Unless the thing imagined can itself be examined, the skeptic will choose to write it off as a product of wishful thinking.

Seen in this light, the mistake in reasoning is apparent. When the first inventors imagined flying through the skies in powered machines, no such craft yet existed. Many technical obstacles stood in their way. Today, of course, we are not at all surprised to see tons of steel, wire and plastic do something that to primitive minds would have seemed miraculous – “float” gently into the skies carrying countless people and possessions safely and gracefully from point to point. Similarly, when early scientists concluded that atoms possessed the potential for practically unlimited power, no nuclear reactors had yet been built. Many more examples can be “imagined” in support of this simple notion: the imagination, despite its name, is not limited to only conjuring up creatures or things that are not real. The imagination – and more generally the mind – can lead us to conclusions that are indeed real.

So, what then is the difference between conclusions about unicorns and conclusions about God? For that, we must spend a moment considering what each conception involves. As the dictionary makes clear, unicorns begin and end in the realm of myth. And myth, of course, is make-believe: a “legendary story without a determinable basis of fact or natural explanation; any invented story, idea or concept.” Any analogy to unicorns is necessarily an analogy to something that is not real.

But what is God? When we say that God has “super” powers such as omnipotence, omniscience and eternality, are we simply communicating myth? Put differently, is God a construct of our imagination, an assembly of features into some greater, mythical whole? Or is he, by contrast, the “conclusion” that reason and reflection lead us to? The “conclusion” – in the sense of the set of features necessary to make sense of reality, to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

St. Anselm of Cantebury gets at this distinction in his Ontological Argument for the existence of God. Anselm realizes that when we use reason to consider what the conception of God entails, we are led to an understanding that such a being must be maximally great; he is that being a greater than which cannot possibly be conceived. If a person can conceive of a being that has any attributes greater than “god” then they are not yet holding in their mind the correct conception of God. Anselm goes on to conclude that God’s “necessary existence” is an inseparable aspect of what the conception of God entails.

Applying a similar approach here, the problem with the skeptic’s view is that a unicorn is simply a set of features that might exist in a horse; horses, foreheads and horns all exist and concepts like chastity and purity are real. Anyone considering the conception of “unicorn” understands that they are thinking about something symbolic. God, by contrast, is not a construction of already existing parts or concepts. The God of the Bible is not like the Greek or Roman gods. He does not have a specific function, such as making the rains come or enhancing fertility. He does not have weaknesses or rivalries. He is not a collection of human attributes projected onto a mythical or magical being, to explain why for instance the seasons change or the rains come.

No, as Anselm understood, God is the label we apply to the kind of being sufficient to make sense of the creation of a universe from nothing, the fine-tuning of the universe making it suitable for human life, the source of the intelligence, morality and personality we see manifested in our fellow human beings. These things cry out for an explanation, and a creator of infinite power and intelligence who stands outside of and apart from his creation is the beginning of that explanation.  Although our limited human minds can never fully comprehend, we can at least begin to approach an appreciation of what God entails, and hopefully a desire to learn more.

Christianity has answers there as well. Reason and general revelation give us some insight into God, his existence and his nature, but only through his own self-revelation can we begin to know him better, to begin to enter relationship with him. But we cannot take the necessary next step while we continue to insist that he is not there.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    al- as you may have noticed, I was careful to say that my ideas about the similarity of unicorns and gods in no way constituted a proof that they don’t exist, so the syllogism you made of my comment does not apply to me.

    And I would be careful with Anselm’s Ontological Argument. If you think it logically proves the existence of a supreme being who fits your Jehovah, it must likewise prove the existence of a supreme horse, who fits the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Any unicorn you imagine not existing cannot be Her Invisible Pinkness.

    Or why stop at beings? There must be, on Anselm, the Best Beach in the world too, and the Best Ice Cream Sundae, and even the best Argument Against the Ontological Argument. It’s safe to let go of Anselm- it’s just wordplay.

    And again, I beg to differ: yes, Jehovah is not like the Roman gods; He’s just one God responsible for everything. But He most certainly has very particular characteristics, and even takes some pains in the Bible to enumerate them. He’s obviously humanoid and male for starters. And He’s a loving Father but also has a nasty temper. And He’s got a backside, according to Moses.

    Sounds like bits and pieces of familiar stuff from the real world to me, just like unicorns.

    But again, don’t forget: this is not a proof of anything.

    cheers from very wet and flooded Vienna, zilch

    • Al says:

      Zilch, the Ontological Argument leads to the existence of a maximally great being, not necessarily the God of the Bible. When you say it also supports the best ice cream sundae, you are simply reflecting that (no offense intended here) you have not yet grasped Anselm’s argument. But I would never rest the case for God on any one argument – the 15 or more that have been refined over the centuries make a compelling cumulative case.

      • zilch says:

        And what exactly is a “being”, al? Another anthropomorphic category. Why does maximal greatness have to be limited to a “being” and not to a “force” or a “place” or a “rock”? And indeed, “greatness” itself is also a concept from our human lives. Why not the “maximally large” or “maximally tasty” or “maximally dangerous”? You, and Anselm, are making unspoken assumptions that you don’t realize.

        No offense intended, al, but I’m afraid I understand Anselm just fine. I just think he was wrong.

        cheers from wet Vienna, zilch

        • Al says:

          Zilch, a being is a living entity. Maximal greatness does not have to be limited to a being, but it only makes sense in the context of a being. Anselm wasn’t creating categories. He was following where reason led. He asked the question, what does one think of when one considers the conception of God? That’s what led him to maximal greatness, words meant to approximate what God must necessarily entail. Similarly, food is anything edible that provides nourishment. That’s what the conception food entails. Maximally great food is nonsensical, because food does not lend itself to such a categorization. Yes, Anselm was making assumptions – for instance, that only “real” things can be contemplated by the mind, but they were not unspoken. So, no offense taken, and none intended, but you are making a straw man of Anselm’s argument and knocking that down.

  2. zilch says:

    al- you’ve not answered my objections to the parochial nature of Anselm’s “greatness”. What exactly is “greatness”? Is God the greatest trotter, and the greatest neigher, and the greatest horned steed? You and Anselm are still being anthrocentric about what “greatness” consists of.

    And in any case- as I believe I’ve said before, I don’t see any reason to think that humans have the right to confer existence upon any entity they cannot imagine not existing. Just because you can’t imagine something not to exist doesn’t mean that your inability puffs something into existence, does it? You, and Anselm, are crediting us puny humans with the power to create gods with our inability to imagine that they don’t exist. Kind of bizarre if you think about it.

    • Al says:

      Zilch, “greatness” is a comparative measure, applying to the characteristic or quality at issue. The examples you offer – eg. neighing – are simply an appeal to ridicule which don’t really advance the inquiry. The argument is not that humans conjure things into existence; the assumption underlying the argument is that reason operates in a way that is reliable. We can’t use reason to corroborate or authenticate reason; it is the starting point. We must assume its reliability for us to learn anything. The question then arises – where did reason come from and what does it tell us about the nature of reality. That is what led Anselm to conclude that the mind acted as a sort of receiver, and that it was incapable of receiving “unreal” data. When he focused his inquiry on what the conception of “god” entails, he realized that embedded in reason is the notion that God must necessarily exist because that’s what maximal greatness – i.e. God’s essential attribute – entails. The challenge to the argument has more to do with circular reasoning – the assertion that Anselm has embedded his conclusion into his definition – than to straw men arguments that this allows for the creation of eg. perfect ice cream sundaes.

      • zilch says:

        Okay, al, I admit that neighing was jocular. But the problem remains.

        I can conceive of the best possible ice cream sundae. It cannot lack existence if Anselm’s reasoning is correct. But you can’t conjure beings out of nothing with wordplay. Just because we understand what words such as “greatest strength” point towards, namely some imagined quality to the max, does not mean that some being must exist that embodies that quality to the max. Words can be used to point at things in the world, but they do not compel the world to produce beings.

        Or as you put it:

        “The argument is not that humans conjure things into existence; the assumption underlying the argument is that reason operates in a way that is reliable. We can’t use reason to corroborate or authenticate reason; it is the starting point. We must assume its reliability for us to learn anything. ”

        The real world transcends reason. There would be no reason without real beings in the real world, as far as we know. And if reason clashes with the real world, the real world has the last word.

        Reason is necessary, as you point out, but our reason is only as good as its tools, and although words are the best tools we have for reason, they are not necessarily a perfect match for reality.

        As I pointed out above, words have a logic of their own, which may point to superlatives that can be imagined (the best being, for instance), but that only reflects on how the words work, not necessarily how things are in the real world. You need real-world evidence to say anything about the real world.

        cheers from rainy again Vienna, zilch

        • Al says:

          Zilch, Anselm’s reasoning simply does not support your contention regarding ice cream sundaes. The conception of a sundae is of a type of food, while the conception of God is of a maximally great being. The sundae you speak of “exists” but only in the form of imagination. It is an imaginary construct based on things you know to be real. There is nothing in the conception of “sundae” that requires it to exist.
          Reason is the “tool,” and words are the way we use the tool. Reason is only as good as the logic that we employ. That’s why fallacious “reasoning” needs to be identified and eliminated where possible. Anselm’s argument is valid, in my view, but I would never rely on it alone. There are at least a dozen others that cumulatively make an overwhelming case for God.

  3. Demyan says:

    Zilch, an ontological argument in general is by nature trying to use our ideas and our words with reason to reach a conclusion about God, so no connection to a “measurable” reality is sought, which seems to be what you’re looking for. There are other types of arguments which is why I believe Al is stating that the one argument alone is sufficient evidence. An ontological argument is by nature “anthropomorphic” because it requires the existence of people with an idea of God – but note that this does not diminish its value (there is a nice quantum mechanics / philosophy argument to why that I’m sure somebody else has thought of but I haven’t found it online yet). Back to the ontological argument: The premise is that people have an idea of God and the existence of the idea requires the existence of God or else the idea itself is not self-consistent. One could argue that the idea need not be self-consistent, but I believe history makes it hard to argue the idea does not exist.

    • Demyan says:

      Correction: “the one argument alone is NOT sufficient evidence. “

      • zilch says:

        Demyan- I’ve never maintained that the idea of God does not exist. All I’ve said is that ideas do not necessarily constrain reality. The ontological argument does not prove the existence of God. or of the Best Ice Cream Sundae- for that we need real-world evidence, not words chasing their own tails.

        • Demyan says:

          I agree that it is a limitation of the argument: it does not assume that ideas constrain reality but that reality constrains ideas, so if the idea exists, it must have originated in reality. This is an assumption and so I certainly agree the argument “proves” nothing, only helps show how belief in God is perfectly reasonable. Also, the comparison to a perfect ice cream is valid only if you maintain that people have indeed experienced lesser “gods” or some other supernatural beings, since the Christian idea of God is not a “super-person” but rather somebody who is distinctly not human (e.g. God’s declaring himself “holy” — separate or distinct).

          • zilch says:

            Demyan- the “limitation” of the Ontological Argument you point out renders the argument false. As I’ve already pointed out, words can point to things that don’t exist, and words cannot poof things into existence. So while there may be reasonable reasons- I won’t say “perfectly reasonable” because we are not perfect- to believe in God, Anselm is not one of them.

            You say that my comparison to the ice cream is only valid if supernatural things exist, because apparently Anselm’s argument only applies to supernatural things or beings, not to real ones. That alone should tell you that it’s merely wordplay.

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