There are a number of points I wish to make that I feel necesary after reading the above posts.
(Overhead # 1)
1. I shall demonstrate how belief in any God defined by organized religion is epistemically irresponsible. That is to say, people ought not to believe in such a being because in doing so, they commit many errors in reasoning and ignore compelling counter evidence to their rigid dogmatic views.
2. I shall discuss what is involved in making knowledge claims in order to show how those who believe in such a God fall far short of possessing actual knowledge.
3. I shall demonstrate what can be known regarding any type of God.
4. By discussing how the concept of God and organized religions are novel inventions of our ancestors which were created in order to explain what was long ago an unexplained environment, I shall discuss various religious 'tensions' which will clearly demonstrate how such gods are about as real as such current inventions as Pokemon, Sailor Moon, or the Powder Puff Girls.
1. Epistemic Responsibility
What can or cannot be known makes up a field of study in philosophy known as epistemology. 'Epistemology' is just a big word which means 'the theory or study of knowledge'. In this field, we try to determine what criteria a specific claim must satisfy in order for us to call it a knowledge claim. Some examples include: consistency, coherence, simplicity, reliability, power of explanation, etc. For example, if Susan believes that there are currently twelve invisible elephants walking up and down the aisles of this great theatre, your knowledge claim will quickly be put to the test. When others claim not to see these elephants, you may simply respond by saying: "Of course you can't see them! They're invisible!" But then, why should we believe you? "Because", you might add, "I have a unique ability to 'know' that they are here. And not only that, but I know they will look after and guard us from the deadly invisible tigers out in the lobby". Now this may be an exaggerated example but it raises a very good point-namely, we demand more from this person than simply her word and a supposed 'capacity' to know such things. In short-we demand proof. In demanding proof, we are simply being epistemically responsible. That is, in order to hold a belief, or make a claim, there are criteria which we use to determine our acceptance or rejection, or, in some cases, suspension of belief. The invisible elephant and tiger scenario is not consistent or coherent with our current experiences and so is quite lacking in its power of explanation. And so, we reject this claim. And this is a responsible thing to do simply because we have little choice in the matter but to refuse to believe. Now, should future evidence give us some indication that there really are such invisible beings in this hall, we may need to reconsider.
Now the reason I would maintain that we are more justified that there are no such invisible animals is due to our observations of the natural world and the development of specific methods which better enable us to understand and interact in the natural world. Now, I wish to make clear that I am not suggesting that because the methods I accept produce what I believe to be more reliable information about the world, that I can never be wrong. On the contrary, the accumulation of knowledge is an on-going enterprise. It is dynamic in its evolution of finding new and novel ways to describe and understand the universe. And so old concepts, models, etc., can be expanded, developed, even abandoned if new and better ones come along. And any responsible knowledge agent must, in some ways, be a good skeptic (Overhead # 2).That is, she must recognize that her current claims may change should new evidence come along. Anyone not willing to consider new evidence in light of current explanations, claims, etc., can rightly be called a dogmatist (Overhead # 2) i.e., someone unwilling to entertain the possibility of being in error. If Susan does not consider the overwhelming amount of evidence in light of her claim that she is not only a dogmatist, but, as I mentioned earlier, he is being epistemically irresponsible. That is she SHOULD consider the new evidence. She has an OBLIGATION to at least consider it in comparison with his current claim.
But notice how, in the scenario I have just described about poor Susan, I have not mentioned what many of you are already thinking? Let me put it another way: What would you say about a person who would make such a claim? Are they thinking properly? Are they...crazy? And yet there is a striking similarity between what poor Susan believes and what an apparent 90% of the world's population believes in-namely, God.
2. The Division of Knowledge
What I often tell my students, is that when it comes to knowledge, we can make a distinction between knowing things at the common sense/scientific level (Overhead # 3)-where we can confirm or falsify various claims e.g., the door is now closed, the boiling point of water is 212 degrees (F), etc.; and knowing things at what's called the metaphysical level (Overhead # 3)-or that level at which we must speculate because the nature of the material is beyond the scope and ken of our current observational, conceptual and reasoning powers.
Such examples of metaphysical topics include the existence of God (however defined), the possibility of an afterlife, the universality of morality, etc. Although we can talk about these issues, we cannot have knowledge about them in the same way we can at the common sense/scientific level. And so I make the distinction between small t truths and Big T Truths (Overhead # 3).
Now, as an evolutionary epistemologist, I am constantly aware of this division between common sense/science and metaphysics. I am ignorant at both levels; however, at the small t truth level, it is easier to find corroboration and agreement. There are times when, confronted with evidence regarding a particular issue, one can argue either for, against, or suspend judgement altogether. Choosing either of these three alternative depends on what evidence we choose and how justified we are in those claims. The manner in which we accept/reject evidence in light of a particular claim establishes what I have referred to as epistemic responsibility. That is, was a knowledge claim accepted on grounds that warrant justification? In other words, in asking whether or not one is being epistemically responsible, we simply need to consider the grounds and evidence on which we either accept, reject, or suspend judgement on a particular claim.
It is easier to establish justification for claims made at the small t level of truth because we possess the means by which to test given claims i.e., through observation and reason, we can confirm, falsify, or be neutral.
Epistemic responsibility, however, applies equally at both levels of understanding-the common sense/scientific and the metaphysical.
3. The Limits of Our Knowledge of God
Although my focus of attack tonight is against any organized religious account of God, we need to notice something very important at this stage. If we were to talk in very general terms about God as, say, some vague creative force without which the universe would not be as it now is, then the epistemically responsible thing to do is to suspend judgement. For it seems equally as plausible than not that some creative force caused the universe to come into existence. And why is this epistemically responsible but belief in say, a Judaeo-Christian God is not? I'm glad you asked. It is because our current understanding of the universe gives us a model which defines its origins in a tumultuous explosion-The Big Bang. Now astronomers and physicists can tell us very well what the universe was like shortly after this event. But they cannot tell us what happened prior to it. It is, of course possible that we live in just one of a series of oscillating universes i.e., Big Bang, Big Crunch, etc. But the question would still remain as to whether this system was self-governing and accidental or purposely created by some force we could vaguely define as "God". But I can consider that it is just as likely that we live in a universe created spontaneously which, by sheer accident, created us novel beings capable of pondering the deepest questions of our own existence as to one which has a purposeful Creator. But either way, I cannot say. And this is because the answer lies in the realm of the Big T Truth-a realm to which my current concepts cannot apply. By acknowledging my own ignorance, (Overhead # 3) I can attempt to better understand the universe and my place in it with humility (Overhead # 3) and in an epistemically responsible manner. What does this tell us about the existence of God, then? Well, at best, if we simply defined "God" in an extremely vague and general way as something which intended the universe to be, then we see what is called a disjunct of equal plausibility: (Overhead # 4)
G v ~G
(God or Not-God)
If there is no God as a creative force of the universe, then the universe is simply accidental and we, as humans, are a product of that accidental occurrence.
If there is a God, however, many questions would emerge.
In the case of what we can know, the epistemically responsible thing to do, is to suspend judgement. For there is no overwhelmingly convincing evidence pulling us in either direction. Neither scientist nor theologian can side on this matter and maintain epistemic responsibility. To choose either side, would involve the incorporation of something far weaker than knowledge-it would incorporate faith.
Now, faith, as they say, can move mountains. But faith is often misguided. For example, if two armies are engaged in battle-a holy war, let's say-and both sides have faith in their differing conceptions of God, it appears obvious that faith will not be enough for the losing side. And so should any members of the losing side survive, they are going to have to come up with some type of explanation for why God was not on their side that day (perhaps they should have tossed a virgin into an angry volcano). Whatever reason for the army's loss will be justified somehow if faith in His goodness and plan is to be maintained. And this is only a case of two opposing faiths. There are hundreds of religions throughout the world with hundreds of divisions, sects, cults, etc. each claiming in their own special way to best understand God's plan.
Now the problem with theism in general is that not only is faith in the existence of God proclaimed (i.e. choosing one of the disjunctive sides), but He is given numerous qualities, character traits, attributes, etc. and He (patriarchal) tells us humans (through revelation) not only how the universe came to be, but how we should act as well.
In all organized religions, there are specific traits, qualities, etc., attributed to God which results in several 'tensions'. The more one tries to define such a being, the greater the likelihood in contradiction and error. For it moves one further and further away from the knowable plausible disjunct.
Instead of maintaining an epistemically responsible position, the theist multiplies entities far past necessity (a violation of Ockham's razor). Instead of suspending judgement on G v ~G, the theist not only chooses G, but adds a great string of conjuncts in the form of qualities, commands, descriptions, etc., e.g. the Christian claims to know that there is a Creator and it is all-powerful and all-knowing and all-present and all-good and it created humankind, and it told humankind what constitutes the world and it told mankind how to act/behave, and it gave to mankind its only son, and etc.
(Overhead # 4)
G = x1 & x2 & x3....xn.
(Where x = qualities, attributes, commands, descriptions, etc.)
The more conjuncts one adds to G, the more likely it is to find unsolvable tensions, inconsistencies, contradictions, etc., and the more likely such a position is likely to die the death of a thousand justifications.
4. Tensions with Current Definitions of God
There are several tensions or problems which I shall consider tonight. They include:
1. The tension between defining God as all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient) and reconciling this with free will.
2. The problem of defining God in one particular way among an indefinite number of choices.
3. The tension between human biology and religious morality.
4. And the tension between defining God as All-Good (Omnibenevolent) and reconciling this with the existence of evil in the world.
1. The Problem of Free Will
If theists maintain that God is all-powerful and all-knowing (as one can find throughout Genesis, Jeremiah 16 and 32, Revelations 1:8. Psalm 147, John's Gospel, and clearly discussed in Aquinas' Summa Theologica), then we humans do not possess free will.
A common belief by Christians is that the all-powerful, loving, knowing, and present God granted man free will so that he may choose between good and evil. If he chooses according to the word and commandments of God and his son Jesus Christ--that is to say, correctly, he is rewarded i.e., Heaven. If he chooses incorrectly, he will suffer rather severe consequences i.e., Hell. The purpose of choosing is to test one's moral righteousness. God does not allow just anyone to enter through the pearly gates.. This is a fairly exclusive club and you need the right credentials to get in. Let's consider these defining characteristics of God for a moment.
If God is indeed all-powerful and all-knowing, we need to consider what this means. The concept of omniscience is a difficult one for us ridiculously puny humans to wrap our tiny little minds around. To know everything would entail, one would think, the inclusion of all information concerning all aspects of the universe. And this does not mean that this information is known for a single moment in time. God's knowledge would transcend time. That is, He would know all information about all things in the entire universe that ever occurred, is occurring, and will occur. Think about this for a moment folks. The concept of omniscience should not be taken lightly. It is staggering to think of any being which could possess such knowledge. And this is BIG T Truth knowledge--the biggest of the big; and time transcendent to boot. God would know how many hairs are on each one of our heads right now. He would know how many atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc., occupy this great hall, He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for...but wait a minute. If God knows all of this, does it not follow that He knows, say, what I will have for lunch tomorrow (should I survive that long)? And if He does not, can we still define Him as omniscient and omnipotent? I don't think so. All right then, so let's assume He does know everything. What does that mean? It means that neither you nor I nor anyone on this planet at any time would have had the free will to choose or decide how we wished to act at any given time in our lives. If God's omniscience means that He possesses this type of knowledge, then He would have known ten billion years ago what type of person each one of us was going to turn out to be. And if that is the case, we can hardly choose freely, can we? If He knows what I am going to turn out to be at the end of my life, then He knows and has known for a long time whether or not I will be eternally rewarded or punished. If this is the case, then I DO NOT have free will because no matter what I choose--whether I help the poor, aid the sick, drown kittens, or shag my neighbour's spouse (male or female) it just doesn't matter. For my fate is known by God--it is locked in.
Now I ask you: What type of a sick metaphysical being would create a bunch of humans, just so they can act out this charade of free will only to have their fate determined since the beginning of time?
To reconcile this problem, one may wish to limit God's knowledge i.e. He can be defined as knowing everything BUT how we choose. But this would no longer make Him Omniscient.
2. The Problem of Specifying One Particular God Among an Indefinite Choice
We must now ask ourselves why should God possess such characteristics in the first place? If in our disjunct it turns out that G is true--that there is a creative force which caused this universe, then there seems to thousands, if not millions, of different ways in which such a Being could exist. For example, as the great Scottish philosopher David Hume said, the universe could have been created by some child god with a great deal of power but quite shy of omniscience, who has made a rather immature effort in constructing our world. This may strike us at first to seem a little odd, but if you think about it, it would certainly go a long way in explaining why humans are such physically and morally imperfect creatures. You would think a perfect God would have made His greatest creation a little sturdier.
There are, of course, many other examples of possible Gods: If, for some reason, we do not suspend judgement on our equally plausible disjunct but wish to exercise our faith, we could believe in almost any type of God, couldn't we? We can imagine God to be incomplete--having just enough power to start the universe and now He is evolving as it expands and humans are the intellectual components which are evolving along with Him. Or we can consider that God is a giant Elf and his angels are really invisible gnomes with wicked senses of humour that like to hide your car keys and steal single socks out of the clothes dryer (this would certainly explain a lot wouldn't it?) Or there could be a counsel of Gods who sit around and discuss metaphysical issues and then take notes. You or I could be God and we have the power to delude ourselves that we are God until such a time as there is world peace--upon which you (or I) will re-awaken and take our place as the rightful King or Queen of the Universe. God could be gay or favour gay sexual activity (which, if male, would really make Him Queen of the Universe I suppose).
The point here, of course, is that whenever one tries to discuss specific characteristics of such a possible being, it simply lies beyond the scope and ken of our current concepts and the likelihood of truth (and we are talking about Big T Truth here) diminishes with every new defining characteristic, commandment, description, etc.
3. The Tension Between Human Biology and Theistic Views
If we maintain that evolutionary theory (the new synthetic theory) is the best current explanation describing how humans originated, as I believe that we have an epistemic responsibility to maintain, then it follows that Christianity not only paints an extremely misguided picture of the natural world but that its morality artificially imposes and suppresses many human drives, desires, instincts, etc., which, when suppressed, can lead to deleterious or harmful effects to individuals. For example, the tensions which exist in the average adolescent boy between desiring sexual activity and listening to what a particular religion dictates can often lead to rather severe emotional problems. The boy who thinks that even masturbation will lead to some form of metaphysical punishment because he is weak, is tormented because his biological urges (in the form of raging hormones) and his religious beliefs, are at odds. Giving in to biology can be taken to be a moral failure. And so the boy, himself, can start to see himself as a failure as well. The complexities which develop due to the intent to maintain specific rules of religious doctrine in light of biological urges have given rise to many deep-rooted social problems. In the Bible, there is very little reference to sexual maturation in terms of hormonal activity and pubescent development and rightly so. Much of the information in the Bible was written at a time when there was very little comprehensive information concerning the workings of human reproductive development. So it is not unreasonable to consider that such an antiquated view of biology would, eventually, lead to emotional and psychological conflicts within maturing individuals.
When we look at humans as just another type of animal, we can see how we share the same instincts, desires, urges, etc., as other animals. It is far more reasonable to assume, based on the overwhelming amount of natural evidence, that humans are an evolved species with specific biological characteristics, and that religions are misguided artificial inventions of humans used to explain natural phenomena and dictate moral activity.
4. The Problem of Evil
The final problem concerning God that I wish to consider involves the tension between defining it as omnibenevolent (or All-Good) and the presence of evil in the world. Simply stated, the problem of evil is this: How could an all-good and all-powerful God allow so much evil to occur in the world? If He is powerful enough to intervene and lessen the amount of evil in the world but does not, He is not all-good; if He truly is all-good but cannot effect change, then He cannot be all-powerful. At this point, we need to distinguish two types of evil.
Natural evil is the type of evil that occurs beyond man's power. Examples include floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, disease, pestilence, natural disasters of all types, etc.
Moral evil is the type of evil humans inflict on one another. This involves things like cruelty, pettiness, crime, unjust punishment, etc.
Now I can understand why some theists maintain that there is evil in the world. It is to test our faith in God and to build our character (so called 'soul-building evils').
The problems here are numerous. Why wouldn't God simply make His greatest creation (us) better in the first place? That is to say, why wouldn't He have made us sturdier moral creatures less prone to choose evil?
Secondly, even if we accept that evil is necessary to build our moral character, does there have to be SO MUCH evil? Again, David Hume mentions that far less evil in the world would still suffice in building our character. Why does God allow over 10,000 people in Turkey to be killed by devastating earthquakes when clearly, less would have had the same impact?
And finally, to borrow a far-reaching point from the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, I find it extremely difficult to believe that any all-Good God would allow the suffering of little children to make us stronger. If I had a three-year-old child and she died a horribly painful death of bone cancer, how can this possibly be justified? The usual retort is that God works in mysterious ways. But my response is that no Divine plan could ever justify the torment such a child (and millions of others) have gone through, are currently going through, and will continue to go through until our species becomes extinct. If there is moral evil in this world because Eve convinced Adam to bite into an apple which came from, ironically enough, The Tree of Knowledge, then let's start again. You give me a shot at the Garden of Eden. Because I have a few questions. Like why would such a God want his creation to remain ignorant? Is it not the natural inclination of humans to wonder? Does it not seem an absurd demand to repress knowledge? In most countries which have similar rules, we call this a dictatorship. I call it bizarre and yet one more conjunct which is strung along the chain of characteristics of a God which has as much reality as the invisible elephants. It is far more reasonable to maintain that the concept of God and various religions are novel inventions some created by our ancestors to explain what was then a largely unexplained environment. Such religious beliefs suffer from deep anthropocentric problems in which God takes on human characteristics magnified to infinity. God was far more likely made in our image than the other way around. To put us rightly on the same level as other animals, if all other species-from Dung Beetle to Blue Whale had gods, wouldn't they resemble Dung Beetles and Blue Whales?