A new book on “proofs” of God

The November 9 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books (a magazine I didn’t even know existed) has a review by Robert Bolger of a recent book by writer Nathan Schneider: God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet.  I haven’t yet read Schneider’s book, but plan to.  Bolger’s review, however, notes that it’s a history of attempts to prove God’s existence, but is more than that: an attempt by the author to somehow discern God or His nature from the combination of those proofs. In other words, in the deconstruction of those proofs lies something about God himself. And all this, says the reviewer, is interwoven with Schneider’s personal search for God.

Well, that all sounds pretty convoluted, and, by seeing the book only through the reviewer’s eyes, I may be doing it an injustice. But what Bolger says about the book reveals something about the reviewer himself—and about religion.  First, Bolger raises the specter of scientism (remember, the quotes are from the review):

If proofs for God don’t work like “proofs” in general do, then they are either not proofs at all or function in a really unique, even queer way. It is the latter suggestion that God in Proof seeks to present and defend. In a sense, the book offers a “grammar” of proofs; that is, a way of showing their meaning without diminishing their importance. God in Proof aims at bringing proofs back home and covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh. Schneider breathes life back into proofs, the life they once had in the heady days before “knowledge” became synonymous with “scientific knowledge.”

“Covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh” can be translated to “the proofs aren’t convincing, but maybe we’ll find them more convincing if we see them as wish-fulfillment.” And what about those “heady days” when revelation passed for knowledge? Bolger may miss them, but I don’t. It’s those revelations that caused so much religiously-inspired mischief.

At any rate, late in the review Bolger gives his own view of what a religious “proof” is all about. And it becomes clear that such “proof” really means “an argument that won’t convince anybody but a believer.” In other words, those “proofs” are expressions of faith: belief supported by evidence that can’t win general assent:

Assenting to a proof for God is similar; it is couched in the language of rationality — it argues for the existence of something. Yet, as I hint at in my own book, Kneeling at the Altar of Science, the impetus behind accepting a religious proof as valid comes from a person’s gut (or soul) and not merely from her mind. [JAC: Thinking with the gut is always a bad thing to do.] The proofs are only meaningful for certain people; whether they mean anything has more to do with what we bring to the proofs rather than what the proofs brings to us. Isn’t this odd? It certainly is because it is odd to say that proofs “prove” only if we are in a position to see them as proofs. But the oddity disappears when we realize that this is actually what we mean by “proof” in a religious context. Schneider writes, “Assent, like this, is a convergence — a meeting of circumstances, choices, and the best of one’s knowledge.” This is why at the end of the book Schneider can say: “The proofs can be explained and taught and respected from a distance, yet still there remains the fact that you either grok it or you don’t, and that’s that.”

Translation: religious proofs of God don’t really demonstrate the existence of God to a skeptic, but only to those who already believe in a God.  When Bolger says the meaningfulness of proofs depends on what we bring to them rather than what they bring to us, he’s admitting that we accept them only if they prove what we believed beforehand. That is, they’re just apologetics: a way to buttress a belief you already had. This, of course, is the difference between a scientific demonstration (“proof,” if you will) and a religious proof.

Bolger goes on, and the first sentence of the paragraph below is telling:

But this leads to another radical claim, namely, that the truth of a religious proof cannot be known except by those who accept it. This is an important point to make since it lets us see that searching for God is not simply searching for some thing among others, a being among other beings, or a creature that is strong and powerful but lives far away. If God could be found at the end of a logical proof [JAC: most proofs of God aren't based purely on logic, but on observation and deduction], then finding God would be like finding a solution to a math problem or surmising a previously unknown planet by the laws of physics. It is only in the failure of the religious proofs to function in the way other proofs do that we learn something about the meaning of the word “God.”

That’s not just a radical claim, it’s a foolish claim.  It’s like saying, “The truth of proofs about abduction by aliens in UFOs cannot be known except by those who accept it.”  This takes the word “truth” away from its general meaning and makes it personal. Bolger might as well admit what he hesitates to say outright: “proofs” of God are different from what we normally think of as “proofs” because we’ve already accepted God from the beginning. The proofs are simply special pleading; ways that intellectuals devise to justify post facto what they believed (for different reasons) in the first place.

It’s telling that Bolger begins his review with an anecdote:

And there are probably many who are simply born with a faith that flows, so to speak, as naturally from their DNA as their curly hair or their cholesterol count. In a story that may be apocryphal, but I suspect true, the late Yale philosopher Paul Holmer was once asked how he, a professional philosopher, could believe in Christianity. He replied, “Because my mother told me.”

Indeed.  I don’t have the data, but I suspect that the great majority of theologians who confect “proofs” of God were born to a faith, imbibed it with their mother’s milk, and then never grew up, but simply used the intellectual skills they acquired to justify their childhood beliefs. Such people were perfectly able to give up their belief in Santa Claus, but can’t do that for God. But of course Santa doesn’t bring us an afterlife for Christmas.

What disturbs me about Bolger’s review, besides his circumlocution about wish-thinking, is the implication that we learn about what “God” really means from the proofs for God given throughout history: this is supposedly the main theme of Schneider’s book. (Schneider, by the way, is a religious Jew.) That makes little sense to me, but never underestimate the ingenuity of the academic mind.

Bolger has a new book himself, Kneeling at the Altar of Science, which, according to his website, is about this:

Does religion need to look more like a science? If much of the contemporary work published in science and religion is any indication, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.” Yet it may be that the current tendency to dress religion up in the language and methods of science does more harm than good. In Kneeling at the Altar of Science, Robert Bolger argues that much of the recent writing in science and religion falls prey to the practice of what he calls “religious scientism,” or the attempt to use science to explain and clarify certain religious concepts. Bolger then shows, with clarity and humor, how religious scientism does more harm than good, arguing in the end that religious concepts do better when their meaning is found in the context of their religious use. This book promises to be a fresh approach to the ever-popular dialogue between science and religion.

What Bolger is saying, “with clarity and humor,” is that we don’t need any stinking evidence for God.  We should just immerse ourselves in the feelings and emotions, and we’ll find Him that way.

I think this rejection of  the notion of “God as a hypothesis”—a hallmark of New Atheist thinking—is a tacit admission that people have finally seen that there’s no convincing evidence for God.  Theologians and religious thinkers, with a few exceptions, now realize this as well, but instead of joining us in our nonbelief, they revert, like Francis Spufford, to an emotional defense of God. “The proof doesn’t come from evidence, but from surrendering yourself to the emotions, immersing yourself in the Great Beyond.” “When you do that,” they say, “you’ll realize that God is real.”

To me that is nonsense. For God’s existence is surely a matter of the greatest import to believers, no matter what Sophisticated Theologians™ say, and if you commit your life (and your perceived afterlife) to the truth of a proposition, you’d better make damn sure you have good reasons to believe it.  Surrendering to your emotions or thinking with your gut (the real meaning of saying “the truth of a religious proof cannot be known except by those who accept it”) is the worst reason to believe anything.

 

73 Comments

  1. George
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    The first place I ever learned to prove anything was in geometry. And the teacher started the class by showing 2=1. I was proud that I figured out his (intentional) mistake – division by zero. Before anyone says they are “proving” something, we should demand they have mastered the simple proofs of elementary high school geometry.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      …and aren’t using the word “proof” as a rhetorical mistake when they really mean “argument”.

      There are NO proofs for the existence of god(s). Only arguments.

      Although in this case, I’ll be less kind in thinking it a rhetorical mistake — it’s deliberately conflating one thing for the other.

      In other words, a fraud an a con.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 12, 2013 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        …and aren’t using the word “proof” as a rhetorical mistake when they really mean “argument”.

        There is the older, but still valid, meaning of “proof” as a test or probe of a proposition.
        For example, I take this new design of bomb to the proving grounds to see if it goes ‘bang’. Or, I take this sample of suspect alcoholic liquour, pour it onto some gunpowder, and if the gunpowder is dry enough after burning off the spirit, then that spirit is “proof spirit”. “The exception probes the rule” would mislead fewer people as to what the phrase actually means than the normal usage that “the exception proves the rule” ; another casualty of language drift.
        But in total, it all sounds like a con.

  2. Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    If a “proof” could not convince the sceptics, what’s the point of presenting it anyways? The answer is of course, to keep those believers who are doubting their believes, on board.

  3. Russell La Claire
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    People are going to pay hard earned money for that swill.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 12, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      Not if they can get a review copy they’re not.

  4. TJR
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    So, first “Theology” is redefined to be not about gods, now “Proof” is redefined to be not about proving things.

    Quetzalcoatl wept.

  5. gbjames
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    the late Yale philosopher Paul Holmer was once asked how he, a professional philosopher, could believe in Christianity. He replied, “Because my mother told me.”

    What kind of an education is offered by a university that can hire a philosopher who believes things because his mommy told him so?

    • gbjames
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      damn… and this time, the check box…

    • Sastra
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      There’s really no wrong way to be a believer, is there? If the Yale Philosopher had cited some actual argument well then THAT would have been fine, too. However you get there, just get there.

      I’m amusing myself by imagining Jerry being asked “So, Dr. Coyne, why are you, a professional biologist, an atheist?” — and him replying “Because my mother told me.”

      And then there are more grins and giggles when I try to imagine other atheists nodding along approvingly at this reply, glancing in triumph at the Christians.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        “There’s really no wrong way to be a believer, is there?”

        Sure there is – by being a believer who never puts anything into the collection plate. ;-)

        • teacupoftheapocalypse
          Posted November 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          One of the major problems with religion is that just about every one of the many groups of believers out there thinks that all of the other groups believe in wrong way, one way or another. Some of the groups think that this is such a problem that they use these, often very minor, differences of opinion as justification for murder.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        His mom would’ve hated me. When my mom told me I must be colour blind (my mother and I have an ongoing debate about colours and I tell her all the time that she learned the names wrong ;)), I was in grade 10 & pulled out my science books to prove to her that if I was colour blind then so was she! QED.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 12, 2013 at 4:56 am | Permalink

          (my mother and I have an ongoing debate about colours and I tell her all the time that she learned the names wrong ;) )

          Get her one of these, and disagreements are over. I’d lend you mine, but it’s out in the ‘baggin shack, next to the microscope.

          • Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

            For what it’s worth, Munsell (since bought out by X-Rite) makes all sorts of color reference charts and other materials.

            For what Diana is describing, though, a Pantone swatchbook (again, now owned by X-Rite) would probably be a more useful reference.

            b&

            • Diana
              Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

              Yeah the Pantone swatch is good and logical. My mom would just say the swatches were wrong. :)

              • Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

                Now that would be interesting to hear an explanation for.

                Would she claim that so many parts of this ink mixed with so many parts of that ink and this other ink printed on such-and-such a paper shouldn’t be identified as 342U (or whatever), or would she claim that the 342U sample chip doesn’t actually match whatever it is you’re comparing it to?

                If the latter, and she’s not just pulling your leg, she could well be a tetrachromat….

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 14, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

                She’s just a smart ass. She’d probably have no explanation.

              • Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                Ah. Well, that can be good, too….

                b&

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted November 14, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

              I didn’t know that both Pantone and munsell had been brought by “X-rite”, who ever they are (more mutants form Marvel?).
              That is ominous. For those of us who are cnotractually required to use one or other colour description / definition system.

              • Posted November 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

                I wouldn’t worry overly much…X-Rite has been in the color business for a long time. I’m not thrilled to see one company dominate the industry so much, but they make some great stuff and haven’t shown any indications of being interested in tarnishing the brands they’ve acquired.

                For a long time, Gretag-Macbeth was the gold standard in measurement equipment (spectrophotometers, colorimeters, etc.) in the graphic arts and photography worlds (you may be familiar with the ColorChecker). After X-Rite bought them out, they started updating the products and made them better than ever. The ColorChecker Passport is significantly superior in every imaginable way to the original ColorChecker; the new line of i1 instruments is much improved over the predecessors; and the ColorMunki (an inexpensive spectrophotometer) is the cheapest such instrument ever made but still of surprisingly high quality.

                So, there’s cause for cautious optimism that X-Rite will be good stewards. At the least, they’ve done well so far….

                b&

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted November 14, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

                That vote of confidence (you obviously know more about the business than I do) instills a guarded note of optimism.

              • Posted November 14, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

                Guarded optimism would be about right. Keep an eye open for signs of things going south, but no more than you would with any other vendor.

                b&

              • Diana
                Posted November 14, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

                “more mutants form Marvel”

                Ha! Awesome sauce!

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted November 15, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

                It wuz a tyop. Onnist missus!

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      At least he was honest about it. I suspect that his intellectual honesty on that point might have more to do with his mother’s teaching than his philosophical training as well. :-)

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Obviously we can conclude that the things you learn at university that do not agree with what your mother told you must be ignored because they are wrong, and the things you learn at university that do agree with what your mother taught you may be ignored because they are redundant.

  6. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Maybe we’re seeing the emergence of a new kind of pseudo-pragmatic christian faith where the feelings in themselves are proof enough for their god?

    Science certainly haven’t been helpful to the need of afirming the existence of gods and maybe this is starting to dawn on the rational believer.

    There’s no gods in sight and the idea of one keeps drifting further and further into the dark void.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      The ‘new’ arguments are really just re-runs of the original arguments: religion and spirituality are characterized by their innate reliance on mysticism, special revelations, and/or personal interpretations of personal experiences. I think that modern believers are really starting to realize that striving for honest objectivity isn’t possible within this system. So now they have to revert to the idea that what looks like honesty (‘Let’s approach religious truths like hypotheses which we might be wrong about’) is really DIShonesty, a denial of what you know in your heart is true.

      Up is down.

      I think this new way of defending-the-faith-by-defending-faith is just another way of advocating what Stephen Colbert termed Truthiness:”a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

      Isn’t that what Spufford and Schenider and Bolger are doing? Religion isn’t “true.” Religion is Truthy.

      What’s ironic about this is that the term was originally coined to mock the Republicans. My guess is that some of the same people who laughed at the joke are now playing it themselves.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        “What’s ironic about this is that the term was originally coined to mock the Republicans. My guess is that some of the same people who laughed at the joke are now playing it themselves.”

        Yes, that is true, but don’t forget that a lot of the issues that animate today’s Republicans are religiously inspired and motivated (abortion, anti-gay, anti-terrorism which is really anti-Muslim). ISTM that Truthy religion and Truthy conservatism are mutually reinforcing and primarily responsible for the absolutely nutty rhetoric that passes for Republican talking points these days.

        • Posted November 11, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          The people who laughed at the joke in a political context but don’t realize they’re making the same mistake in a religious context are the liberal, progressive theists.

      • Posted November 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        “Religion isn’t true. Religion is Truthy.”

        Very nice. That’ll be making the rounds.

        • Sastra
          Posted November 11, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          Once several years ago (right after Colbert used the term) I ingenuously defined “truthiness” to a group of believers and asked “so it seems that you’re telling me that religion and spirituality aren’t true — they’re truthy, is that right?”

          And because I smiled and asked that question in respectful tones, I got an enthusiastic “yes!” in response, all around. They were grateful that I finally “got” it.

          WTF. Either they didn’t understand or didn’t care what the hell they had just admitted. All that mattered was that I had seemingly acknowledged the importance of their intuitions and feelings. At the time I had the impression that if I had asked the exact same question with a hint of condescension or a sneer, they would have angrily and hotly denied that their views rested on “truthiness.” I still think so.

          It seems to me that a lot of religious believers care too much about approval — their own, or that of others. Plus, of course, they run a serious risk of accepting any viewpoint from an atheist as long as it implies that the atheist is now going to shut up and leave them alone. A lot of the non-apologetics Jerry has been posting seem to not be defenses of the faith, but defenses of THEIR faith. The Argument from Shut Up, That’s Why.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    This is a case of the emperor having no clothes. It is a story written by the emperor’s mistress (Schneider) and defended by the court jester (Bolger).

    Shades of Plantinga and C.S Lewis.

    “The Christian philosopher has a perfect right to the point of view and prephilosophical assumptions he brings to philosophic work; the fact that these are not widely shared outside the Christian or theistic community is interesting but fundamentally irrelevant.”
    ― Alvin Plantinga

  8. francis
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    //

  9. Mattapult
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Let’s play Pin The Tail On The Deepity. I’ll start:

    “…covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh” — deepity.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      I like to think of what you did as pinning the deepity on the tale (sic).

      • Mattapult
        Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        LOL

        Somehow, REO Speedwagon is stuck in my brain now:

        “But I know the neighborhood
        And talk is cheap when the story is good
        And the tales grow taller on down the line”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      I actually found that quote you added as the more offensive parts of the entire piece because it pretty much says that “we, the religious, are human & have feelings while you, the materialist evidence based truth seekers, are inhuman and heartless. We are the good and you are the bad”.

      This notion is popularized in anti-intellectual circles. Recall the popularization of heros who just react and think with their guts vs. the boring analytical types who are portrayed as squeamish and stymied.

      I personally encounter these stereotypes at work on occasion and my response is 1) I don’t react without evidence so if you talk about unsubstantiated perceptions my answer is (raspberry). 2) Let’s look at the track record – we can make wild ass guesses and see what sticks to solve something or we can do it methodically using analysis and even math. The second way has yielded results with less cost. You decide which one works.

  10. Sastra
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Religious “faith” isn’t a matter of believing without evidence. It rests on the idea that the evidence — whatever it is — is just sufficient enough for anyone who wants to discover the Truth: a seeker. By rational inference then, the reason people don’t believe doesn’t come down to reason. It comes down to some sort of emotional or mental blockage. Nonbelievers have a spiritual defect. They do not seek.

    But oh, the great benefit of faith is supposed to be the way it unites people, the way it stokes their kindness and fellow-feeling towards others. Atheists then are more to be pitied than hated. Unless, of course, you fear them and the threat they make to faith. Believing in God (or Spirit) is a hard thing to do for a reason: it tests your resolve, your willpower, your character, your capacity to love. Atheists want to take that away from people. No wonder they want us to shut up — and tacitly accept the status they’ve created for us in the storybook going on inside their heads.

    What we can see which they can not (or perhaps they DO see it and don’t care) is that applying ‘faith’ this way mixes up categories of things. A fact claim is treated as if it were a meaning claim. So we get the bizarre analogies, like how believing in God is like believing in love. And every time believers try to helpfully explain themselves like this, it just twists the knife deeper into what that way of looking at belief makes us.

    We’re not stupid. The gnu atheists have had it.

    I know a lot of ‘liberal’ believers who agree that their belief ultimately rests on faith .. and this means I can relax and be their friend. They’re not going to try to convince me. They won’t proselytize. They won’t persuade. They’re extending the olive branch and declaring a mutual truce. I am who I am — and they are who they are. Let’s all leave it at that.

    It’s so easy to look at the surface of that and accept it in the spirit of the offer. Accomodate yourself to belief-is-identity and consider the approach of mutual respect.

    How tempting. How nice. But the apologetic which hides behind this ‘non-apologetic’ — this view that the skeptic doesn’t need to be convinced because the convincing must come from one’s own heart — is not only insulting, but dangerous. They don’t want respect, they want forbearance. And in return they’ll glide as smoothly over the denigration of the nonbeliever as they glide over the damnation of the damned.

    Three things kill faith: curiosity, clarity, and consistency. So they have no other choice but to frame believing in God like it’s the same as believing in your mother’s love. Making demands for “proof” is rude. You know your mother exists. And atheists know there is a God.

    Pernicious.

    • Matt G
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      I find your lack of faith disturbing….

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Sastra ~ Will you please, please, please collect your postings and organize them into a book or a blog or a website?

      Pretty please??

      If you don’t, I might have to start a Sastrawiki.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      “Believing in God (or Spirit) is a hard thing to do for a reason: it tests your resolve, your willpower, your character, your capacity to love.”

      Believing is only hard if you are a person who likes to actually think about stuff. If you are one of the bobble-heads who never reads more than one Bible verse at a time, and who goes to your megachurch and nods approvingly at whatever the preacher says, believing is very easy.

      • Posted November 11, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        That was written from the theist’s perspective. As in: “I, as a theist, have a more respectable character. I am the one doing the work, putting in a noble effort. Atheists are atheists because they are lazy and have let their faith module atrophy.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Yes pernicious for sure. It’s a way to “there there” atheists as they tell us we’re broken. You see it non religious contexts as well – “there there logical person; I get your “science” approach but let’s talk about feelings and how you don’t have them”.

  11. jaxkayaker
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    You shouldn’t think with your gut because your gut is full of shit.

  12. Brian
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    This whole review comes down to truthiness; facts don’t matter, but emotions and gut feelings sure do.

  13. jimvj
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Which is the greater leap in illogic?
    “Proving” that some kind of deity exists, or
    concluding that the deity has the attributes your own religion claims it has?

  14. Matt G
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    If you require proofs, how much faith can you have? A case of wanting to have it both ways: I want faith to satisfy the emotional, and “proofs” to satisfy the intellectual.

    • Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Well, yeah.

      The religious mind is nothing if not a tortuous mess of self-contradiction and cognitive dissonance.

  15. Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    “The proofs can be explained and taught and respected from a distance, yet still there remains the fact that you either grok it or you don’t, and that’s that.”

    There’s that “grok” word again. Looks like you’re in for a real treat with God in Proof, Jerry.

    “Proof” is such a troublesome word. One of the most common language tricks (of many people, religious or not) is to either demand that its level is that of an abstract mathematical /logical proof, or that of no level at all – many times shifting meaning mid-stream. …when the reality of whatever it is under discussion is usually somewhere in-between (unless we are talking about either logic/mathematics on one hand or married bachelors/God on the other.) Consequently, “truth” becomes a similarly-loaded term.

    This is a big problem. It is also the main reason why you do NOT want to have any dealings with the judicial system as an outsider if you can possibly help it.

  16. Salty Dog
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    The mental gymnastics involved in this process must be exhausting and likely in conflict with how believers go about drawing conclusions in every other part of their lives.
    I think in the case of the majority they just accept what they have been taught by those they have come to trust since their birth, their parents. In every other part of their lives this has been good advice so why challenge it now?
    I wonder if anyone has ever looked at the statistics for continuing belief by adult children whose parents who have rejected this faith and are atheists?
    Why do believers think their God plays these games when it would be oh so easy for him to demonstrate his presence. Do they really want to believe that their God is this nasty and insecure bit of work that tortures his people with natural disasters and demands their adulation yet refuses to confirm his existence!

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    It has been argued that from the beginning the reason Christianity became so heavily creed driven and developed such elaborate theologies is because of its encounter with Greco-Roman skepticism (a point neglected by Karen Armstrong though she blames the rise of modern fundamentalism on the scientific revolution [partly true] while maintaining that early Christians more enlightened viewd much of their beliefs as symbolic metaphor [greatly exaggerated by KA, IMO]).

    But in the ancient world, Christians had the Greek tradition of philosophical monotheism to draw upon, which has no modern counterpart other than Immanuel Kant which falls back heavily on fideism, the notion of allowing a leap of faith on the basis of indirect and inconclusive evidence (or Plantinga’s sensus divinitas). Thus these discussions keep revolving around the merry go round of “fideism” vs. “evidentialism”, William James’ “Will to Believe” vs. Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief”. (I find James a great pleasure to read unlike most of his modern counterparts.)

    I lost interest in proofs of this kind a while back, but only recently learned that mathematician Kurt Godel developed an elaborate proof extending the ontological argument. Now Godel both proved the celebrated incompleteness theorem (certain mathematical systems have proposition s that are true but not provable) and was among the first two show how Einstein’s equations imply the existence of black holes, so maybe I’ll take a look. On the other hand, Godel was believed to be unbalanced, like mathematician John Nash (“A Beautiful Mind”).

    PS I know how to do German umlauts on a PC but not a Samsung tablet. There are two dots above the o in Godel.

  18. Latverian Diplomat
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Somehow, I doubt this book will rise to the level of clarity of thoroughness of this

    http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/authors/goldstein/36%20Arguments.pdf

    Which is just the appendix to this novel:

    http://www.amazon.com/36-Arguments-Existence-God-Fiction/product-reviews/B00AK2NNYI

    I can’t attest to the novel itself, but the appendix is pretty decent, I think.

    • Bern N.
      Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      I’ve read the novel and recommend it, for no other reason than its insight into contemporary Hasidism. Plus Klapper, the pedantic professor, reminds me of one of my philosophy profs.

  19. Chris
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    The whole thing reeks of the cargo-cult.

    If you build enough stuff that looks like science (or logic, or philosophy, or whatever) then real science will arrive.

    Okaaaay then.

  20. Posted November 11, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Logical proofs start with premises — with definitions. “Assume that such-and-such is true, and then the rest follows of necessity.”

    The problem with theological proofs is that their definitions all themselves inevitably contain contradictions, so (of course!) any conclusion can be proven from such starting premises.

    “God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, all-present immaterial physical and spiritual force that created all that is, was, and will be.” Pretty much any believer would happily embrace such a definition, and yet I can’t how many inescapable contradictions are embodied therein. So is it any surprise that any “proof” which assumes even the possibility of any such entity necessarily can trivially reach any conclusion desired?

    Cheers,

    b&

  21. jeffery
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    “And there are probably many who are simply born with a faith that flows, so to speak, as naturally from their DNA as their curly hair or their cholesterol count.”

    A “telling” paragraph: adherents of religious belief systems would LOVE to see a discovery proving that, indeed, “Believers” are BORN “different” than “Unbelievers”- not only would this lend credence to the “us/them; we’re special and different; they’re going to Hell, and we’re not” dichotomy that supports their confirmation bias, but it also would make the task of seeking converts easier: one need not waste time and energy on those who are born “non-credulous”.

    The recent “hotness” of the emphasis on emotion as the “realm” of faith is a purely natural response to the fact that believers are having more and more difficulty getting people to buy their old delusions and arguments- it’s just another twist on that old standby of, “God is beyond science, so you can’t use science to prove or disprove God’s existence.” Of course, recent studies in neuroscience are beginning to show that there are definite “brain-reasons” why people believe things that are contrary to reality, and are beginning to show that “free” will is a convincing illusion (free will being one of the underpinnings of religion; one must accept or not, of their sincere free will, the tenets in order to get the “rewards”- this is true even of Buddhism, which supposedly claims no “God”). Of course, just as in the case of new evidence for evolution being available to creationists, cognitive bias will cause these findings to be ignored as long as possible.

    Sastra says: “Believing in God (or Spirit) is a hard thing to do for a reason: it tests your resolve, your willpower, your character, your capacity to love.”
    I disagree- it’s TOO easy to “believe”- the believer may, of course, have to exert an effort, sometimes a great one, to resist “temptations” that would compel him to violate the tenets of his beliefs, and to resist any criticism of them, but the initial belief that drives this was acquired by his NOT exercising his critical thinking (in the case of a “pleasurable” emotional appeal as a motivator, we are easily and naturally drawn to things that make us feel good)

    I’ve said for years: “Ignorance has, and always will have, an ‘unfair’ advantage over knowledge; knowledge has to be tested to prove its accuracy, updated to reflect new facts, protected from those who would corrupt and subvert it for their own ends, and passed on, intact, to the next generation. You don’t have to do ANYTHING to be ignorant- in fact, the less work you do, the more ignorant you will be!”

    To live life without the crutch/blinders of religion seems to me to be a far more challenging (and exciting) thing to do.

  22. MNb
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    It always has been like this. Christian philosophers began formulating their god proofs because they were impressed by the success of Ancient Greek mathematics. That was long after Jesus and his followers founded christianity.

  23. ROO BOOKAROO
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    JonLynnHarvey

    The umlaut replaced the old script modifying a vowel sound with the addition of “e”, as in “ae” (Mädel, or Maedel), “oe” (Goethe), or “ue” , so that, when unable to use an umlaut, you are allowed to return to the old spelling, that is “Goedel”.
    Anybody knowing German will take this in stride and automatically know that this is equivalent to “Gödel”.
    As for the others, well, they’ll have to learn. In any even, “Goedel” is far better, and far more accurate, than “Godel”, which looks too much like God doing a yodel.

  24. Kevin
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    He’s starting from a fatally flawed premise.

    He’s not dealing with “proofs” about the existence of god(s). He’s dealing with ARGUMENTS about the existence of god(s).

    Different. As the kind folks over at aquinas.org are quick to point out, arguments cannot prove the existence of god(s) precisely because they can be…wait for it…ARGUED.

    He’s built his edifice on quicksand.

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      This is as trivial as the perennial point that there are valid arguments for the existence of god.

      (Of course there are. “God exists, therefore god exists” is one.)

  25. moarscienceplz
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    “Thinking with the gut is always a bad thing to do.”

    LOL

    Could this be an explanation for why so many Tea Partiers are morbidly obese?

  26. Brad
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    “Does religion need to look more like science?”

    Nevermind that. Science needs to concern itself with taking on the character and attibutes of religion. It’s now known that professional misconduct is more rampant in science than previously believed. When scientific finding are fudged or “wanted” into existence, science begins to butt up against religion’s most enduring pyschological habit — seek and ye shall find, whether it’s true or not.

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Assenting to a proof for God is similar; it is couched in the language of rationality — it argues for the existence of something. [...] The proofs are only meaningful for certain people; whether they mean anything has more to do with what we bring to the proofs rather than what the proofs brings to us.

    Inasmuch as these “arguments” are subjective, they are neither existence claims nor any kind of proofs.

    I think Bolger too has been forced to abandon a gods-of-the-gaps apologetic in the face of an atheist nature, which makes theological claims the same as homeopathic claims. “I feel, therefore magic is.”

    [I have slowly come around to the fact that I no longer need to be an atheist, merely a skeptic, because nature itself is atheist. Now we know many rejections of magic action.

    Indeed, inflation alone makes both deism and theism homeopathic notions.]

    It is only in the failure of the religious proofs to function in the way other proofs do that we learn something about the meaning of the word “God.”

    If religious “proofs” are orthogonal to all accepted kinds of proof, we learn that the word “God” is meaningless. A foolish claim indeed.

    And yes, that religion is powerless and needs special pleading to be contemplated even by fools.

  28. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Proof #6413 that God exists:

    1. First, redefine “proof” to include things that I just *know* are true, because proofs that rely solely on “scientific knowledge” and “logic” are just too constraining and poopy-headed and unheady for me.

    2. God must exist, I just *know* it.
    3. Therefore, God exists.
    Q.E.D.

  29. Vivekananda
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Does the work consider theological arguments or expositions on the nature of Gods outside of those of the Abrahamic religions? Does he consider the traditions of Hinduism, which espouse varying philosophies ranging from monism to traditional polytheism, and their justifications for belief in the Hindu gods? Does he consider the arguments in Buddhism against belief in a God responsible for creating and governing the world? Does he consider similar arguments against a creator deity in Jainism? Scanning through the review, I don’t believe this is the case.

    How are we to know that any of these religious traditions, or their conceptions of or arguments against the existence of Gods, bear truth? A Vaishnavite Hindu would provide as compelling a personal testimony to the divinity and miracles of Krishna as any that a Christian could offer for that of Jesus, as would a Shaivite Hindu for Shiva. Are all of these beings existent and divine? Should the ingrained prejudices and emotional inclinations of the Christian believer be privileged over that of a Hindu, or vice versa? Clearly one’s emotional disposition cannot be the determinant of truth.

    How can Christians question the validity of arguments for belief in other Gods and other, conflicting religious doctrines, if religious ‘proofs’ can only be proofs if one already has the faith to consider them as proof of one’s pre-existing religious biases? If I were to accede to one of the religious ‘proofs’ devised by Vaishnavite philosophers for the divinity of Krishna and the claim that the nature of God is revealed most fully in the Bhagavad Gita, would Christians accept my beliefs as valid and true? If not, how could they possibly demand such respect and treatment for their beliefs alone?

    In the end, this exercise tells us nothing of the real nature of God(s), or whether such beings exist. It simply tells us what we already knew, that people will resort to any means to rationalize their emotional prejudices and biases and demand that others respect them as truth.

    • Posted November 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Christians would answer all your questions in one of two ways.

      Most would simply say that all those non-Christian gods are false gods, at best imaginary but most likely the work of Satan.

      A small number would take an ecumenical approach and declare any “truth” that might be discovered through other religions to be alternate, likely fuzzy, impressions of Christ.

      Remember, if they were capable of applying the outsider test, they wouldn’t still be insiders. And, for what it’s worth, I rather suspect that those in other religions take a similar approach to Christianity — that Christ is a parody of Krishna, for one example, and the exact nature of said parody would depend on the particular Hindu individual you asked. Maybe Jesus was another incarnation of Krishna; maybe Christians made up Jesus and patterned him after Krishna; maybe he’s an asura or the (fictional or real) creation of one.

      b&

  30. Kevin
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Seriously, if one had “proof” that a deity existed…the whole idea of writing a book about it would be ridiculous on its face.

    You don’t need many “proofs”. You just need one. Once something is “proved”, that’s all you need. A second “proof” is irrelevant. Unnecessary. Moot. As is the third, fourth, ad infinitum. Proof is a “one-off” event.

    If someone brought the carcass of a freshly killed Yeti off Mt. Everest, that would be proof the species exists. Nothing else is required. But at this juncture, nothing else (absent a live capture) will suffice.

    It’s only because these so-called (and most decided not) proofs fail is there any need to try to bludgeon the skeptic and nonbeliever into submission.

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      In mathematics, one often proves something a certain way, or in different ways, to understand more *why* something is true. Otherwise something like: “0=0, therefore the fundamental theorem of calculus” is a proof. (This is why soundness is *still* not necessarily the end goal, though the theists have yet to do even that without other problems like equivocation and ignoratio elenchi.)

  31. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    “the impetus behind accepting a religious proof as valid comes from a person’s gut (or soul) and not merely from her mind.”

    So *that’s* where my soul is. I knew I’d mislaid it somewhere. I could really think of more salubrious places to keep it, though.

    OTOH, if it’s going to believe in religious ‘proofs’ or any old shit like that, it’s probably in the right place after all.
    ;)

  32. Paul King
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s pretty clear what’s going on. The “proofs’ are rationalisations intended to prop up belief.


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