Many 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:
- We know that a unicorn is simply a “super” horse, a fictitious assembly of real things combined to make something imaginary;
- God, like unicorns, possesses “super” powers;
- 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