“Oh, I believe in God,” my friend said. “But not the kind of God you’re thinking about. God is just an energy force, like in Star Wars maybe, the stuff that holds the universe together or that powers it. But God’s not a person. The Bible’s just primitive man’s attempt to make sense of this force. Like imagining that Thor throwing thunderbolts is the reason we hear thunder.”
Interesting position, I thought. I wondered how much effort he had spent on developing it, and how satisfying he found it. I decided to try and find out.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I prompted. “Are we talking about God as in the creator of the universe? Or are we talking about some natural property of the universe, like gravity or light?”
“No,” he said. “I mean that the universe was created by this power source and we were created eventually by the universe. I just reject the idea that God is a person that wants to have a relationship with us. He doesn’t think, at least not like us, and he doesn’t give a hoot about us. He – or rather ‘it’ – just is.”
This was progress. If the “force” were an element of the universe, then my friend would still need to explain where the universe came from. But we were getting more focused: this force was what brought it all into being.
“So, would you agree that the men you’re talking about – the primitive ones who were trying to make sense of things – had minds that utilized reason?”
“Of course,” he answered, not yet seeing the point. “They just weren’t very good about using reason, I guess I’d say.”
“Well,” I asked, “does this ‘force’ have a mind that uses reason? Could this force, if it didn’t have a mind, create something – even primitive men with limited reasoning – that was nonetheless greater than itself? I mean, even poor or primitive reasoning is better than no reasoning at all, right?”
He was beginning to see the problem. He thought at first that I would try to defend the Bible and its “superstitious” positions. “I’m not sure,” he began. “Probably not.”
“So, you’re picturing some form of evolution, right? The ‘force’ gets more complex as time passes, adding more stuff to itself. Is that how you’re picturing it?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty close,” he said. But this, of course, did not solve his problem.
“Then, is it your view that this ‘force’ eventually developed a mind? That our minds stem from this mind in some way?”
“I don’t know,” he responded, getting a bit short. “I haven’t thought about it all that much.” He was beginning to see the difficulty in his view. Did this “force” now have a mind, having along the way evolved one, or did it create a form of life possessing qualities it did not itself have? Neither option was appealing.
“Fair enough,” I said. “But you do agree, don’t you, that this force you’re thinking of probably couldn’t create something – minds and reason and thoughts – that it did not itself already have?”
“I guess,” he conceded.
I shifted gears. “Do you believe in morality?”
“Of course,” he said. “What do I look like to you?”
“Right,” I chuckled, “it was a rhetorical question. Without getting too technical, would you agree that morality involves the recognition that there are things we should or ought to do when we’d rather do something else?”
He furrowed his brows. “I guess that’s one definition. There are probably others.”
“Such as…?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know for sure. I haven’t really thought about it that much. It’s, well, you’re mostly right. There are things we can and cannot do, and a bunch of stuff in the middle that isn’t either right or wrong but merely a matter of preference. So, we probably don’t agree on the specifics. All I know is that I don’t need some God in the sky telling me how I should act. I mean, the Bible is ridiculously outdated.”
“I’m not trying to defend the Bible at this point,” I reminded him. He wanted to get back to where he was more comfortable, attacking the antiquated rules of the Bible. “I want to see whether we agree on some basic things first. You seem to be saying that morality exists, and that while there are many points of disagreement, there are at least a few things – maybe things like rape and murder – that we know we shouldn’t do. Would that be fair?”
He grudgingly agreed.
“Okay. So, that sounds to me like a message. It sounds to me like someone, or something at the very least, is communicating with me; telling me something about how I should act.”
“I don’t follow,” he said, but I suspected that he did more than he was letting on.
“Well, think back to when you were a child. Your parents told you some things that you should or should not do, right? And if you did something wrong, you probably got punished, right?”
“So, your parents were communicating with you, right? Giving you instructions about how to behave, giving you a glimpse of the rulebook they expected you to live by.”
“Well, your parents had minds, and they were using those minds to send you a message about some expectations they had. And, you know from your experience that they attached a consequence to your not following their expectations. Right?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that every message must have some intelligent source behind it? I mean,” he paused to think for a minute, “When it’s snowing outside, I don’t imagine that nature is telling me to put on a jacket. These are things that are just part of how we think.”
“But there’s a difference there, isn’t there? When it’s snowing, putting a jacket on is your response to your environment. It’s not really a moral thing. It’s more of the middle ground you talked about earlier. I’m not ‘bad’ if I choose to not wear one, just foolish maybe. I’m talking about those things where we conclude that doing something is ‘bad’ or ‘evil’”?
“What’s your point?” I could see he was losing interest.
“My point is that only other minds can send messages. Intelligence must lie behind a message. If I see alphabet cereal spread randomly on the table, I might see the word ‘cat’ or ‘ox’ spelled out, but the only message there would be one that I might imagine. But if the words spelled out ‘Went to the store, I’ll be home in an hour,’ I would be wise to conclude that someone is trying to tell me something. So, if we both recognize that someone, or something, is telling me not to murder my fellow human beings, it is similarly wise for me to conclude that I’m dealing with a person. At the very least, I’m dealing with an intelligence that is seeking to communicate with me.”
“But those are just social constructs. You don’t need God to know it’s wrong to rape or murder. We evolved those rules so that we could live peaceably together.”
“Oh, so if society changed back to, say, the time of the Romans, where society’s view was one more consistent with nature, you know, a survival of the fittest type approach, would that change your view?”
“Well, you say that these are just social constructs we are following. So, if society’s Caesar orders gladiator fights and tells one man to murder another, or if he rapes a woman, exercises his ‘privilege’ even though he knows she is not consenting, would society’s approval of that make those behaviors moral?”
“No, that’s different…,” his answer trailed off.
“Is it? It sounds to me like you are judging that scenario using some objective rules you recognize as binding on everyone, and that you realize that even Caesars can’t change those rules. You wouldn’t accept that as moral, would you? So, the question I’ll leave you with is pretty simple: how does this ‘force’ you imagine not, in reality, sound an awful lot like the God of the Bible? Yes, he’s all powerful and outside of nature, like your ‘force,’ but he’s also personal, has a mind, and uses that mind to communicate with us, his creation?”
He said he’ll think on it. I hope he does. But for now, at least, there was nothing more to add.
Posted by Al Serrato