We’re dreaming of a Bright Christmas?

“Asantaism” and “Athorism” are all the rage nowadays – ought Atheism to be our collective next step? In recent times the “New Atheists” have often recommended that the God of the Old and New Testaments be ditched along with other myths and fables for children such as Santa Claus.

It won’t break your heart to hear that, despite the hype at this time of year, that jolly old white guy ‘Santa’ is in fact a fictional character. Many people however, believe that the Judaeo-Christian God can also be placed in an area labelled ‘non-reality’. I argue that the usual attempts to infer a relationship between the two, display cracked thinking.

There is debate in philosophical circles over the sense in which fictional characters can be said to ‘exist’ – however, for the purposes of most of this essay, I’ll take it that Santa does not exist. But for the ‘neo’-atheists to compare God to Santa Claus only displays their own childishness rather than philosophical acuity. It seems clear that wishful thinking; of which the ‘bright’ (Dawkins’ designator of choice) brigade are here guilty; and insightful thinking share a verb, but little else.

Three years back, Richard Dawkins wrote a witty piece in the Washington Post where he implored the western world to give up taking Yahweh seriously in the same way that we’ve given up Thor, that once-rather-popular Scandinavian god of thunder.

“While technically agnostic about all those ancient gods, and about fairies and leprechauns too (you can’t disprove them either), in practice we don’t believe in any of them, and we feel no onus to explain why”

For Dawkins it is clear that in systematizing the universe, Yahweh is best placed into the same category as a leprechaun. Yet Yahweh, who has been part of the dominant world view of the western world for the previous 2000 years; and in the thinking of various other parts of the world for much of that; is neither non-existent nor twee.

So what is special about the God of the monotheist compared to the merry Santa of the mislead secular child? Clearly, God is believed in by a number of people older than 8 years; you may wish to take myself and the Pope as suitable instances. A key factor for me however, aside from the fact that there many intelligent people who take God to exist (pick up Philosopher’s Who Believe, for example) is the weight of positive evidence for Yahweh that we do not have for Santa or any other ancient god. Evidence such as the argument from morality, from teleology in nature, from cosmology, and most important of all, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in history.

I want to focus, however, on the robust ‘big-scale’ explanatory role that Christian theism can play, an advantage that individual gods in polytheistic systems cannot claim and which the faith of the neo-atheists has no hope of playing. Theism provides a much better explanation than atheistic materialism, for example, of the origin of the universe. This idea bears rephrasing – theists claim that God made the universe; God made nature itself. For the naturalist to say “aha, shame on you, ignorant Christians; we know how thunder works, so good bye to Thor and to your god!” completely misses the point and the grandeur of the God concept. Note that this isn’t a ‘god of the soon-to-be-filled gaps’ argument. Discovering natural mechanisms within the natural universe; no matter how wonderful or how many; can no more get rid of God than discovering linguistic structures in a book or blog post can get rid of the author.

The epistemological minimalism encapsulated in the oft-intoned “Occam’s Razor” does not sit well with the way modern science works. In hypothesis-testing, a concept’s explanatory power; not just its simplicity; is important. Particularly suspect is whether the Razor ought to be ruthlessly applied in the case of the universe itself – is it really more satisfactory to have nature itself as a brute fact (or indeed, billions of other universes), rather than a single person as its source? In the light of our own experience of agent causation and creativity, I suggest the personal option comes with at least some initial plausibility.

And there is modern cosmology; and philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe, including those against the existence of actual infinities, which strongly challenge the eternity of matter/energy and hence count against any assumption which takes the universe as brute fact. Yet regardless of, for instance, whether all of the premises of the Kalam argument can be sufficiently defended to convince the already convinced sceptic, there are prima facie considerations in favour of God’s existence that Santa or Thor do not share; minor mythological figures are simply not ambitious enough. Ultimately, whether or not you choose to believe in the existence of the man in the red suit at the north pole, the present question of a personal, non-physical creator of the universe who interacts with it to the point of incarnation, remains important and open; ready for unwrapping and investigation.

15 replies
  1. Pilgrim
    Pilgrim says:

    Hey Simon! Nice to get a commment here.
    First off, you may note that I like to captitalise God – if you want to know why, I guess you could check Wikipedia or something, but briefly I think God is worth this token of respect.
    I wouldn’t summarise my main point in that way at all, but it’s a free country; hallelujah for that!
    I didn’t intend to commit the “intelligent person” fallacy, but the post was edited. In any case, there is perhaps some merit to the idea that well trained people do not believe in Santa, while many philosophers, scientists etc do believe in God.
    Argument from morality – also not part of my original plan. Nevertheless, I find it hard to envisage how humans can be seen as particularly valuable outside of theism – you can of course use language of a moral type if you want, but I don’t know that it’s justified if some completely materialistic account is correct – but that’s an aside.
    3 Teleological arguments – I’m not sure what the problem is really, if they’re carefully formulated, but I’m probably thick. I’m personally a fan of arguments concerning the origin of life, specified and ireducible complexity, but again; I’m probably just thick.
    4 Arguments from cosmology need not be teleological – they could be eutaxiological (I think that’s the word) i.e. concerning the ‘good ordering’ of the world rather than design as such, but more fundamentally cosmological arguments such as ‘Kalam’ (check the Wiki or something) bears no direct relation to the Gk word ‘telos’, or teleology, as far as I can tell.
    5 Please name a historian who seriously doubts Jesus’ existence. Now that you’re on a ‘roll’, name another one. This is not mainstream thinking – and for all your dislike for the “intelligent person” ‘arguement’, I suspect you consider yourself a member of the mainstream. I consider Jesus’ claims about himself quite abnormal actually; quite extraordinary – in the context of the Palestine of his day, or even viewed from 21stC NZ. Do you wanna check them out? They’ve changed my life, no jokes.

    I apologise for being unclear – I’m a novice at this, however, my main point was not to present an argument for God’s existence as such – instead to look at the differences in category between St Nick and God. As I said, “I want to focus, however, on the robust ‘big-scale’ explanatory role that Christian theism can play”. God, theists claim, created the universe and has various other potential explanatory roles, all packaged into a single person. Santa, as nice as he is, explains nothing. God even goes considerably further than Thor, as Thor, as far as I’m aware, was believed to explain minor events within the natural world, whereas YHWH, it is claimed, explains existence itself. This includes the very natural mechanisms of which the materialist is so fond, as well as existence’s eutaxiological dimensions.

    As an aside, you evidently misunderstand ‘faith’ – but that’s ok; so does Richard Dawkins – and he’s at Oxford!

    Feel free to point out where I’m wrong. Cheers; and Merry Christmas!

  2. Simon
    Simon says:

    So the evidence you provide that Santa is different than god could be summarised as:

    1. intelligent adults believe in god
    2. argument from morality
    3. from teleology in nature
    4. from cosmology (which is probably a teleological argument like no. 3)
    5. Jesus' life

    All of which have been around for centuries in some form. And of course, all have had solid arguments against them for centuries, especially in recent years with even more sophistication.

    E.g.
    1. surely you realise this one is rubbish. People can believe anything within cultural contexts, plus indoctrination power.
    2. we're covering this in another thread. Again though, the origins of morality are hugely debatable and modern evidence is rapidly defining it solely in biological terms
    3. teleological arguments have huge flaws – check wikipedia or something
    4. same as above
    5. historians can debate his existence even, let alone him being anything more than a normal human, albeit it an exceptional one

    I'm assuming you realise all this, and you probably think that all the counter-arguments are wrong. Surely you'd be better off just saying "It's a matter of faith". Way more intellectually honest.

  3. Pilgrim
    Pilgrim says:

    My original thought, not clearly expressed in the post or above comment (sorry for typos too) was to criticise the neoatheist move from stating the non-existence of Santa to the non-existence of anything supernatural i.e. to atheistic materialism. The move is flawed, quite regardless of whether positive evidence for YHWH's existence exists – in any case, I still believe it does; including cosmological arguments and historical factors from the life of Jesus Christ and the early Church.

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Its an interesting project to show that Santa and God are not in the same categories, and a helpful one for the neo-atheists out there who don't intuitively perceive the difference. It probably would all comes down to the truth about each entities existence in the end, I guess – which would rely in turn upon the arguments and reasons for thinking each exist.

    In the meantime, it is noteworthy that there are arguments for God's existence while there are no good arguments for Santa's existence. But even if that be a point of contention it would still be the case that there are no good arguments for God not-existing yet there are good arguments for Santa not-existing.

  5. Simon
    Simon says:

    Andre,

    The cell is a good example.

    You seem to be saying the the cell is irreducibly complex and/or that the first cell (in an evolutionary timescale sense) could not have come about by chance – it must have been designed. Fair assessment?

    These are all well covered issues so I’ll refer you to a few pages on talk origins:

    http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CI/CI102.html

    and

    http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB010_2.html

    RE: the distinctions of YHWH you seem to bring out only this point: “Well, YHWH has a long history of philosophical speculation about this God behind Him…”

    That seems to be me to be very much due solely to human cultural circumstances. For reasons of politics, war and power, Christianity came to dominate western culture and hence this is why there is a large body of philosophical speculation. Just like there is for Buddhism etc. in parts of Asia, and of course they have their prophets too. Or Islam in middle eastern countries. Or more primitive religions in Africa. It’s all culture, all man made, nothing supernatural here.

    RE: your argument against the notion that Christians are atheistic to all gods except their own: your argument that your reasons for disbelief are different because you have something to fill “the gap” seems very weak. The reasons for belief shouldn’t matter at all, the fact is you don’t believe in any other gods but YHWH, therefore you hold atheistic views towards them all. Or have I misread you?

  6. Simon
    Simon says:

    Pilgrim,

    3 Teleological arguments – I’m not sure what the problem is really, if they’re carefully formulated, but I’m probably thick. I’m personally a fan of arguments concerning the origin of life, specified and ireducible complexity, but again; I’m probably just thick.
    4 Arguments from cosmology need not be teleological – they could be eutaxiological (I think that’s the word) i.e. concerning the ‘good ordering’ of the world rather than design as such, but more fundamentally cosmological arguments such as ‘Kalam’ (check the Wiki or something) bears no direct relation to the Gk word ‘telos’, or teleology, as far as I can tell.

    Read through the common counter-arguments. I just find teleological arguments for gods are essentially a 'god of the gaps' style of argument. Basically: something is awesome, god must have done it. The cosmological ones, the fine-tuning ones, the biological system ones…they all reflect this simple point. Adding a god into the equation doesn't add anything constructive, and certainly doesn't tell us anything about the nature of this force/being/thing.

    It also leads one to silly conclusions like intelligent design.

    And I'm guessing your joking with the thick comments because you thought I was "writing down" at you? I don't think I was – either way your obviously not stupid. Everyone I've seen write on this site is clearly very intelligent.

    Historian that doubts existence of Jesus? Can't remember who I was thinking of to be honest. I saw a talk on it a few months back. I don't personally buy into that view, it's too radical and seems to discount too much evidence. I was just making an extreme point.

    Also remember, in relation to God vs. Santa, atheists use this argument only to compare the evidence for each thing, not all their properties. Obviously the God character is far, far, far more superior, cooler and complex than Santa. But still, us atheists just take the position that there is as much evidence (when arguments are unravelled) for one as there is for the other. Santa could easily be replaced with any other god that you undoubtedly don't believe in but which is on a more level playing field, e.g. Kali or Shiva or Zeus.

  7. Simon
    Simon says:

    By the way, I'm not personally a fan at all of the name "Brights". Whether they were intending it or not, it smacks of elitism and arrogance, and assumes the position that religious people are somehow necessarily less intelligent.

  8. Simon
    Simon says:

    Agrh, no editing! :)

    But I think the word "bright" has different connotations in US and UK than here where it is more associated with intelligence.

    They're using it with the meaning of "light" – i.e. the "light of reason" etc.

    Still, poor word choice imo.

  9. Pilgrim
    Pilgrim says:

    Thanks for the feedback Simon.
    'Andre' is fine, though it's, interestingly enough, a pseudonym too – probably rather silly, but whatevs – just trying to fix up my gravatar, then I'll have a comment or three more.
    Brights was rather unfortunate, which is my it appeals to my sense of cynicism I s'pose.
    I'll soon be back to defend teleology &c.
    And thanks for giving God a capital a couple of times – He doesn't need my defense in reality, but I think God deserves it anyway.

  10. Andre
    Andre says:

    Ah well this will do.

    I scanned thru the Wiki entry on teleological arguments (TA) & don't see any good counter arguments; perhaps someone can enlighten.
    A simple TA for someone to cut their Christian-killing teeth on: the living cell (choose a type, I don't really mind) exhibits complexity of a spectacular order – indeed, ordered complexity. Open a textbook on cell biology, or email me & I'll give you a short reading list. This complexity is not of the kind which is produced by simple natural laws (e.g. the structure of a snowflake, or convection 'cell' patterns – the convection cell patterns in any case, as I understand, require an energy gradient to be artificially maintained.) I conclude that the cell, absent any other plausible naturalistic explanation for its origin, was probably designed. Note that Darwinian evolution does not in and of itself claim to account for the origin of life, i.e. the origin of a proto-cell. Perhaps the method of design is in doubt. The same, as a common illustration gives it, might be true of a pattern of round metal objects with language-like squiggles on them discovered tomorrow on, say, Pluto (Mars is more popular in the illustrations, maybe as it is a real planet); yet we would hardly conclude that the objects-with-squiggles were undesigned.

    On another note: the universe, it would appear, had an origin outside itself. Santa makes no claims as to being even a candidate for this – nor, I suggested does Thor – nor indeed do Kali or Shiva off the top of my head – perhaps, though, Zeus may present himself at the cosmic audition. So, Zeus is a candidate of sorts – but perhaps no more a candidate than the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if the FSM also makes a claim in the realm of universe creation. So what distinguishes YHWH from his ever-multiplying supposed cousins in deity? Well, YHWH has a long history of philosophical speculation about this God behind Him, which has made claims concerning some of his traits – the other candidates fall down to lesser or greater extent here. But of course pre-eminently, YHWH has the gift, or more accurately, has given the gift, of special revelation.

    Indeed, YHWH, according to some of YHWH's believers, has not only left us some bedtime reading (I'm being serious here – I read the Bible at night), but was made incarnate on this very planet. Now this is a claim worth looking into!

    On another another note, I often come across the "Christians are pretty much atheists plus one unfounded God" claim – but the reasons that I do not believe in (say) Shiva, Allah (as conceived by most Muslims), etc are in fact different to that of the atheistic materialist – I disbelieve, while having something to replace most of the purported achievements of these deities with. An atheist has, I suppose, science – which can come to seem a little insufficient in certain areas – indeed, I would suggest that science, knowledge, experiment, etc, are incomprehensible in a materialistic universe. To recap, I feel no need to examine all of the claims about each and every supernatural being as the category is for me already nicely occupied by the Creator of the Universe known to Christians, I claim, through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Atheists who claim to be open, but aren't busy examining claims of the supernatural, need a better argument than I've seen anywhere or are unjustifiably lazy.

    On that unfortunately negative note I'll have to close.

  11. Andre
    Andre says:

    Interesting. I'm just beginning Stephen Meyer's "The Signature in the Cell" – it looks like it might be worth a read. I'll review it here in a while.

    – the link you gave http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB010_2.htm
    claimed, concerning apparently the most popular scienitific view of the origin of life, escalating hypercycles "…the following stages: (1) a primordial soup of simple organic compounds. This seems to be almost inevitable"
    yet the paper linked for scientific credibility says "Scientists have come a long way from the early days of supposing that all this would inevitably arise in the “prebiotic soup” of the ancient oceans; indeed, evidence eventually argued against such a soup, and the concept was largely discarded as the field progressed." Later in the article a similar comment is made.

    Talkorigin repeatedly says that "biochemistry is not chance", (what this means in the context of abiogenesis I'm not quite sure – it seems it would be far more accurate to say "organic chemistry" (oc) for biochemistry presupposes bios, life; the very question under investigation – but this (oc) is far less evidently "not chance") and also that molecules such as amino acids (a.a.s, found in space, are 'complex' – this, I think, completely misses the point – specified or functional polypeptides and nucleic acids are clearly complex (it is not anyway, so much the complexity that matters – patterns of sand on a beach are 'complex', but not specified or functional in the way a language or genetic code is); biochemical pathways are complex (perhaps reducibly so) – but it is not necessarily true that individual components such as a.a.s are complex – structurally they are simple enough.

    I like the conclusion to the above-linked article:
    –It is still unclear how, or whether, these competing models will fit together, and whether they will lead to a robust scenario for life's origin. Indeed, all may eventually prove wrong, and the real solution may lie hidden in some discovery yet to be made. Whatever the difficulties, says Morowitz, the allure of the field lies in its potential to answer the biggest question of them all. “You're not going to make drugs or better agriculture. You're going to make a philosophical impact.” Szostak agrees: “These are the big questions. Anybody who thinks has to be grabbed by these.”–

    You say "It’s all culture, all man made, nothing supernatural here." This would appear to be 'begging the question'.

    You say I hold atheistic views towards other gods &c. Correct in a sense, but as I have said, my reasons are different. Presumably the reasons for ones 'atheism' are in fact important – e.g. someone else may be an atheist/materialist out of sheer commitment to Marxist ideology – this does not provide support for your brand of atheism/materialism. My reasons for non-belief in e.g. Allah are different to a materialist's. A Christian is able, but not required, to grant that there is supernatural reality in other religions, while the atheist must dismiss all of these possibilities. Yes, I hold 'atheistic' views towards other gods, but my views do not support yours; I accept a form of atheism, in a similar sense I suppose, to which you accept I suppose a form of Christian particularism or exclusivism – but I do not accept the atheistic materialist's arguments for atheism; in order to be a materialist, a revolution in my thinking is required rather than just dropping another god. Similarly, acceptance of the gospel would require quite a 'turn-around' on your part I guess. Fortunately, God is in the business.

  12. Simon
    Simon says:

    Andre,

    Yes that conclusion on abiogenesis that you quoted is very poignant.

    You haven't really said anything of substance refuting the basic and well-established arguments against any sort of teleological argument. Especially when it comes to the cell.

    The most important thing I think is that even if you believe it's strong enough to justify a supernatural designer/force/god/whatever, then it definitely doesn't tell us anything whatsoever about this thing. And it certainly has no relationship whatsoever to any human notion of god/religion.

    And yes reasons for atheism can be varied and wide for sure! I know people who are atheists for many different reasons. Just like you said you're on of all the other gods.

    Welcome to the club Andre ;)

  13. Andre
    Andre says:

    I didn't claim to counter any arguments, rather to put one forward myself for you to do the work on. I think you over overestimate the 'basicity' and 'well-established-ness' of arguments against teleology. There isn't as far as I am aware so much a categorical refutation type argument as an alternative explanation in the form of the current version of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. This synthesis does not claim to explain the origin of life. Theories of chemical evolution are not so well established and don't I think amount to cogent "arguments against any sort of teleological argument."

    "And it certainly has no relationship whatsoever to any human notion of god/religion." This appears simply as stubbornness. I fail to see why evidence of a designer is not consistent with the age-old Christian claim of there being a designer. Likewise with the cosmological argument result in a 'creator', moral law arguments to a source or moral Law-giver etc – these are consistent with a God of the theistic traditions. (Of course some things can be supposed from the existence of a supernatural designer, if this designer is inferred to from the evidence – clearly that 1] there is a designer and 2] that it is supernatural. Also that it is reasonably powerful and existed a long time ago – so if it still exists, it's old. It's not only powerful, but intelligent and has vast powers of computation, e.g. to work out a way to get the different biochemical systems to work together.)

    Again, if you think carefully about it, the reasons for which one is an atheist are presumably still important to you. The alternative 'I don't care why people are atheists as long as they reject God (even if for completely incoherent and/or selfish reasons) does not strike me as being intellectually honest.

    I'm already part of the club – or two atheist facbbook groups anyway I think. But seriously, I've considered atheism carefully and thus far rejected it for a number of reasons. God makes far better sense of the world and of my life. I suggest that if you consider the coherency of your atheism and for example, its (in)ability to provide a rational basis for promoting human flourishing, scientific research or indeed doing anything particularly meaningful, you may reach a similar conclusion.

    On another note I wished to reply to a couple of earlier comments regarding the cosmological & teleological arguments. You say all of these arguments ascribe awesomeness to something and then move on to God. This is a weak analysis. As an aside, it seems you might agree with ascriptions (if that's a word) of awesomeness to various natural features, but disagree with a conclusion of 'therefore God' – yet I wonder whether atheism provides the conceptual resources whereby anything can really be claimed to be 'awesome'; particularly objectively, but even subjectively, given the materialist reticence about treating human persons as conscious subjects. Anyway, my main point is that the cosmological (Kalam) argument does NOT in fact claim 'awesomeness' for anything – it simply claims existence, beginning-of-existence and from there a cause of existence. This is not the same at all as issues around anthropic principles and other universe-level design arguments. I note that William Lane Craig is able to argue – and I think quite well – for further attributes of the inferred cause of the universe, including non-materiality, supreme power and even personhood. A recent is in the "Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology" – if you have access thru a university, it's available to view online through Blackwell Reference. Also, teleological arguments are not really about awesomeness either – e.g. the modern ID movement makes claims about natural properties which they believe to be scientifically detectable and useful for further research – notably specified complexity and irreducible complexity.
    In conclusion, read the book(s).
    With other stuff to do, I may stop contributing further to this post. If anyone has liked the info distributed, people are in any case welcome to email me; see the about/contributors page.

  14. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Just what precisely are these well established and basic counter-arguments against the teleological argument?

    By the way, the best TAs are best construed as inferences to the best explanation, and not from analogies. And the Kalam Comological Argument is – surprise – a cosmological argument, not a teleological. The differentiating difference is in the attributes of the being that is concluded.

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