Jim Benton on the Atheist / Agnostic Issue

The Sage of Brooklyn, Jim Benton, returns with a guest entry after months of blogging silence. This piece originally appeared as a two-part comment on Debunking Christianity.

I am both an agnostic and an atheist. You see, I make a distinction between a ‘deistic God’ (i.e, a ‘Creator’) and a ‘theistic God’ (i.e., one which has in some way interacted with humanity, who has communicated with us.) As for a deistic God, there are three main possibilities:

  1. The Universe is self-existent.
  2. The Universe was created by someone who is himself self-existent.
  3. The ‘demiurge’ hypothesis: the Universe was created by a non-self-existent being who was itself, directly or at some remove, created by a self-existent being.

Something has to be self-existent. That’s a logical necessity. Occam’s razor would argue for #1, but it is not an infallible guide. I would argue that it is neither — currently — possible to distinguish between these three possibilities, nor is there the slightest practical difference between them. Therefore, I have to be technically agnostic on the deistic Creator issue. (There are other minor possibilities, such as solipsism, which is not logically disprovable, or seeing Creation as a joint effort. I like the idea of Slartibartfast designing the fjords, I admit it. But they can usually be reduced to #2 or #3 above.) As for a theistic, interacting, communicating God, here I am an atheist. I have to deny the existence of such a one, at least of one who has already communicated with humanity. There are literally hundreds of claimants for the title, either stand-alone monotheistic Gods, or pantheons. For the sake of simplicity, let’s ignore the pantheons and Ahura Mazda, and limit the discussion to the “Abrahamic God” in its prime manifestations:

  • The Jewish ur-version.
  • The Christian 3-in-1 version.
  • The Islamic version.

Obviously, the question of their existence boils down to a discussion of the evidence that purports to prove this existence. It is mainly of three kinds:

  • Miracles: true suspensions of the laws of nature that could only be brought about by a God.
  • Direct, ‘mystical’ experience in an individual: direct communication between a God — or a messenger from a God — and an individual.
  • Scripture: literature purporting to have been written by, dictated by, or ‘inspired’ — in the strict sense — by a God.

(Before I start, I should mention the ‘hidden assumption’ that all religions must make; that God not only exists but is honest — to use the Catholic formula, “God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” If this isn’t true, why pay the slightest bit of attention to what he says, supposing he did in fact say it? We might find ourselves before the Holy Throne, and hear Divine Laughter at our gullibility. But a corollary to this is that if a God has a message, it has to be a unitary one. He may have made a series of revelations, with one superceding or correcting the next, but at any given time only one can be operative.)

Miracles. The last statement comes into play here. Of course, I’d go along with the usual comments that miracles don’t seem to happen now where they can be checked, and that some of the claimed miracles in the past were so dramatic that, if they happened, somebody other than believers would have noticed. But there’s another problem. Most believers would argue that God works miracles not just to say “Hi, I’m here!” but to attest to the truth of a (their) religion.

But, if you think about it, any irrefutable miracle would not just confirm the truth of the particular religion it backed, but would equally disprove all the others. One provably miraculous cure at Lourdes should put all of Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, and even Protestantism into history’s dumpster. One miraculous cure by a Protestant faith healer would invalidate not just Catholicism, but any group that has theological differences with that preacher. Given that, true miracles have got to be rare occurrences, and the groups who claim them have to be, in almost every case, wrong. (I would insist that they all are, of course.)

Even the Torah shows YHWH not violating natural laws — as they were then understood, not as we see them today — to create his effects. He does not snap his fingers to wipe out all of humanity but Noah and family, he uses a flood. He does not ‘speak the word’ to part the Red Sea, but causes a wind to spring up to do it. Even the changing of the staffs into snakes is shown to be not miraculous, since the Egyptian magicians do the same thing. So miracles would be a powerful proof of God’s existence, except that they don’t seem to happen often, or provably.

Mystical communication with God. There are millions of supposed examples of this, from the Christian who claims to in some way perceive the presence of God in his daily life, to the saint and the serial killer, both of whom may claim to have heard the voice of God talking to them. Unfortunately, such statements are useless as proof for anyone but the hearer of voices himself. They are not perceptible by an outsider, God does not let his voice be recorded, his appearance be placed on film or tape. And to the outsider, the number of such epiphanies make them suspect. The Christian would reject the serial killer’s “I heard God tell me to kill Nicodemus Gherkin”, and the Muslim’s claim that God dictated the Qur’an, and a kabbalist’s mystical experience. Does the appearance of a Saint to three young people at Fatima convince a Protestant or a Muslim? Hardly, even though they might freely concede the sincerity of the belief the young people expressed when recounting their vision. And how could a Muslim, believer in the God who claimed Jesus as a prophet but denied the concepts of Christianity, accept Christian claims of the daily presence of a Divine Christ when they deny Christ’s divinity?

Again, the limitation of the necessity of a God’s honesty intrudes. If two Christians differ on adult Baptism, and it is an important issue and an important part of God’s plan, both may claim the ‘presence of Christ’ at their ritual, but at least one must be deluded, or the dispute is irrelevant. If pre-millennialism or post-millennialism matters, God cannot truly be present for the holders of the wrong view, no matter how much they feel that they perceive Him. (Or else the true God is a cosmic jokester, putting humanity through hoops, barring them from masturbation, sending them on Hajj, or making them wear yarmulkes, priestly robes, or the hijab and niqab just for His own enjoyment. Such a deity could of course not be trusted in his offer of an afterlife.)

Scripture, the ‘Word of God’. We cannot produce an authentic miracle, we cannot distinguish an authentic ‘personal experience of God’ from a psychotic episode, but we do have these books claiming to be truth revealed. Now, can they be? Any believer must accept that such a message was important to God: that he felt that mankind needed to hear it. I’ve spoken elsewhere of the absurdity of God not inspiring printing before he sent his words — or is God so ignorant of the sloppiness of man that he did not know the errors and ‘improvements’ the copyists and editors would introduce? Imagine an Islamic God, angry that the Jews and Christians had misunderstood his words, writing them in Arabic — a language so imprecise that I have read five translations, and every one of them disagrees on the meaning of the words in important matters. (I have asked Arabic-speaking Internet friends, bilingual, and they cannot help me.) An all-knowing God, yes, might tell stories in the concepts his hearers could understand, using the scientific concepts then believed. But could a God produce the instructions on mildew that, according to Scriptures, he ‘spake to Moses’, or allow himself to be misquoted that badly in his Holy Word? Could a God allow His Word to contain the marvelous hypocrisy of Judah in the story of Tamar, and condemn Judah not for this, but for failing to allow his youngest son to marry the woman? Could, for that matter, God lead a Joseph Smith to the golden tablets, send an angel to translate them, and pick an angel with such limited language skills?

If the message was important, it would have been easy to include simple, unambiguous statements that could later be proven, but that would not have been beyond the audience’s comprehension. “The world is round.” “There is a distant land, inhabited by people, that you guys will someday discover when you sail far enough.” Any simple scientific statement, like the principle of Archimedes, that would have ‘given witness to the truth.’ Or historical evidence. A hieroglyphic report of the Great Plagues. (Surely someone outside of Egypt might have known of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, if only because it would have been a great time to invade.) Or why not some letter from a traveler to Jerusalem who might have mentioned, without believing the claim, this preacher who had gathered twelve disciples, called himself divine and was crucified. If the Apostles did speak to a crowd and all heard them in their own language, would not some returner, unconvinced, have spread the story so somehow it got into a preserved document?

“Blessed are they who have not seen but have believed”. Yes, but so many people have believed so many things. Are the believers in error and truth equally blessed? If God existed, he would have made his message, his appearances, his miracles plain. He did not. I cannot believe in such a contradiction.

I am an atheist. How could I not be?

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10 thoughts on “Jim Benton on the Atheist / Agnostic Issue

  1. “Even the Torah shows YHWH not violating natural laws[ ]He does not snap his fingers to wipe out all of humanity but Noah and family, he uses a flood. He does not ‘speak the word’ to part the Red Sea, but causes a wind to spring up to do it.”

    But does god not violate the laws of nature to force the storm and make the flood waters rise? Does god not violate the laws of nature to make the winds blow hard enough to part the red sea?
    No matter what he does. Unless god has some very large machine up there that can do this or some other ability that allows him to manipulate the laws of nature, then he is in fact violating them in some way.

    Honestly, this is a lot like the arguments the ID’ers are using when they combat the fact they have no evidence for the existence of god. They claim that god is beyond the materialistic world and not subject to it. But in order for Moses to see the burning bush does he not react to the light that emanates from it, reaches his eyes then register as an image of a burning bush? Does Moses not hear sounds that are his voice? If god interracts with the world then that interraction can be measured and understood. Thus the notion that god can interract with us but not register is ridiculous unless evidence exists that defies the laws of nature.


  2. “… is God so ignorant of the sloppiness of man that he did not know the errors and ‘improvements’ the copyists and editors would introduce?”

    Or does he count on the sloppiness of man to arrive at his true message? Is the transition from the unadulterated word of a god to written scripture a game of whisper-down-the-lane, wherein the deity seeds an intentionally wrong or incomplete word, knowing that after enough iterations of an erroneous copying process, the faithful will arrive at the intended message?

    The thing is, if you believe that, then you believe in a prankster god who plays with loaded dice 🙂


  3. MYOB:
    That’s why I said “YHWH not violating natural laws — as they were then understood, not as we see them today”. The section in ellipsis answers your point. (I am not a believer, btw, as you seem to believe.)

    XYZ: a VERY delightful idea.


  4. Excellent points, of course.

    There’s no point arguing with the devout. I once got my father to admit, reluctantly, that there is not a single instance in the Bible (that we could think of) of a person following God’s instructions perfectly.

    The logic went like this:

    God is not fallible.

    People are.

    God didn’t write the Bible.

    People did.

    Even if God inspired it, it’s impossible that the people who wrote it got everything perfect.

    You know what his conclusion was?

    “Well, since we don’t know which parts are right and which parts are wrong, we have to have faith in all of it.”

    That’s when I gave up for good. There really is no point in arguing unless a person is at least open to the possibility of thinking.


  5. Jim,
    Nice post. I have taken a similar approach in my thinking. Is there a Deist Creator God? I suppose there could be, but I doubt it. So I am a weak atheist and/or agnostic regarding this God.

    Then there is the question of the existence of a Benovolent and All-Powerful God. Your Abrahamic God, or any other fitting that description. For this God, I am a strong atheist in that I think this God impossible given the world we live in. As far as I am concerned, Epicurus gave this God the Coup de Grace even before Christ was born.

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

    In various Native American mythologies there are often characters who are known as Tricksters, and often malevolently so. In the Aztec pantheon they had a God like this, his name translated to “Smoke and Mirrors”. So if there is a God, although there probably isn’t, the Aztecs came closest in ascertaining his character.


  6. great post, Jim: until now, I’ve always considered myself a “confused agnostic”…thanks for the distinction.


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