By Juan Bernal
Proposition: We have as much reason for thinking that the Judeo-Christian God is real as we do for supposing that the god Poseidon, of Greek mythology, is real. In short, neither is real.
This is affirmed by a number of the new atheists (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), by my fellow blogger, Chuck R., and by me. However, one of our colleagues from the world of philosophy, Pablo, strongly disputed the proposition at issue. I shall take a close look at his contention.
I am not a great defender of Dawkins and Harris with regard to their harsh views of all things religious. (I won’t rehash here my arguments on this subject.) However, despite my problems with Dawkins, Harris and other “New Atheists,” I am sympathetic with their views concerning much of theology (especially attempts to ‘prove’ existence of a deity). I share their suspicions about the intellectual pretensions of Christian philosophers and other theistic philosophers.
It’s in this context that I took special interest in the following statements by Pablo in an recent e-mail exchange of views. Let’s look at what he says in response to the proposition above. To quote Pablo:
Nothing new here but I’m getting to see more clearly why so many disdain Dawkins’ view of religion. Chuck seems to agree with Dawkins and Harris that the empirical status for God (we still need to distinguish between the God of Abraham and the more refined view of the scholastics) is no better than that of Poseidon. I have never heard anyone argue for any evidence for Poseidon as they have for God which I have cited on more than one occasion. Juan asks how I know this. It’s not up to ME to find evidence for this, but him! I deny on a number of grounds (historical, unclear concept of Poseidon and his nature, lack of interest except, perhaps, to scholars of Greek mythology, etc.) For some 2 thousand years, now, theists have been searching for evidence for the existence of God. This is far more substantial than any for Poseidon or any of the other Greek gods. To conclude that all these scholastic thinkers were mere ignorant mortals (Harris had so stated) despite their use of reason and logic, the same used by scientists, philosophers, legal experts, and on and on, is a bit more than I can bear! Have these critics of theistic arguments been deluded? Are they rationalizing, what?
Pablo main concern seems to be the “existential status” of God. He is convinced that the “God of Abraham” has a more substantial claim to being real than does Poseidon, the Greek God of the ocean. On the other hand, Harris, Chuck R, Dawkins and I would say that they don’t differ at all with regard to their existential status. Pablo refers to their relative “empirical status.” But what exactly is meant by the claim that ‘X has empirical status’? Does this mean that X in fact exists? Or is this just an obscure way of saying that we have empirical evidence for believing that X exists? This is not completely clear. But we should not be surprised to hear a ‘philosopher’s’ speak this way. Philosophers often resort to strange locutions in their talks and writings.
At any rate, given either interpretation, the skeptics on this issue are surely correct: the God of Abraham and Poseidon do not differ one iota in this respect. Neither exists as a matter of simple, empirical fact (otherwise why would we spend so much time with ‘arguments’ for their existence?) and there is no incontrovertible empirical evidence for the reality of either one. (We’re still waiting to hear back from Pablo on this point.) The ‘facts’ that Pablo cites — that for two thousand years theists have been searching for evidence that the God of Abraham exists and that “the scholastic thinkers used reason and logic” – do not support his claim that one has more “empirical status” than the other. There aren’t any reasons (that would pass the test of scientific, rational objectivity) or incontrovertible evidence for the existence of either claimant to the title “God.” The history of philosophy and religion shows that experts often spend hundreds of years promoting and defending a theme which eventually proves to be wrong; history also shows that even those who resort to “logic and reason” often get things wrong. In short, logic and reason, which are undoubtedly crucial in most projects, do not insure that one will always hit upon the truth.
Ultimately, all that Pablo does is remind us that there have been a great deal of theology and philosophical apologetics on behalf of the Judeo-Christian deity, and not much, if any, for the ‘god’ from Greek mythology. “Yes, this is likely true,” we could reply to Pablo, “but so what?” Nothing whatsoever about the “existential status” of the Judeo-Christian deity follows from this. Furthermore, Pablo’s complaint about Harris’s reference to theologians as “ignorant mortals” does not seem to be relevant to the claim about the relative status of the gods at issue. It surely is not relevant to anyone’s (including my) general skeptical views about the value (intellectual or otherwise) of theological efforts to prove existence of the deity. Many who hold such skeptical views regarding theology in general (e.g. John Dewey, Walter Kaufmann, Daniel Dennett) do not see any reason for insulting or denigrating religious faith, religious culture, and religious philosophy en toto. Pablo is simply mixing separate issues here.
Speculation on what really underlies Pablo’s strong views on this matter:
Pablo might simply express the views of someone raised in the culture of Western religion whose thinking is conditioned somewhat by the religious Judeo-Christian culture. This excludes all second- and third-generation non-believers and enlightened atheists. But those in the first group (I’m included), regardless of our philosophical training cannot help thinking that, as Pablo states it, the case for the Judeo-Christian God “is far more substantial than any for Poseidon or any of the other Greek gods.” After all, we grew up in a culture that takes for granted that the God of the Old Testament and the Christian God (Christ?) have far greater claim to being real than the characters (including ‘gods’) of ancient Greek myth. Great religious cultures (Judaism and Christianity) are based on the reality of this God (or is it “gods”?). Some of us may even find it insulting that someone would place the Judeo-Christian God on the same level with a mere mythical figure like the Greek god Poseidon. Hence, Pablo’s strong and emotional reply to what seems to be a simple observation, namely, that when referring to the existential status of any supernatural being or ‘god,’ there really is no difference between the Judeo-Christian god and any of the gods of Greek mythology.