Thursday, November 12, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 1

(For an introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction).

EDIT: Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.

Guest Post by Andy Snyder:

Like Adam said in the intro, we are starting from the beginning here. I’ve moved on since we’ve started this discussion and would not call myself an atheist, agnostic, theist, or a Christian; confused is the best word to describe me these days. At any rate, I hope this discussion can bring more clarity to me and anyone else who reads it. For now I will play devil’s advocate and put forward the argument I originally brought to Adam a year and a half ago. That said; let’s begin with my basic complaint.

Here is my foundational argument: the existence of God is suspect because I don’t have experience of God; I have not seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled the thing called God. Given that the senses are the tools I posses to bring reality to my mind, and that none of these senses have brought me unequivocal information of the reality of God, the existence of God is doubtful. Simply put, God is not real because I cannot sense God as I sense the rest of reality. This is the same line of reasoning I would put to the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the tooth fairy; I don’t experience them, therefore they are not real. Nonetheless, three arguments are often put forward for peoples’ tangible experience of God: supernatural provision, natural revelation, and direct revelation. Let’s deal with each in turn.

We’ve all heard accounts of God’s supernatural provision, stories of synchronicity and the miraculous. If you’ve attended an Evangelical Church for any length of time you’ve heard these sorts of tales (money provided at the right time, an illness cured, etc.) all of which are understood as divine provision. These claims seem to be nothing more than a theological mode of interpreting reality rather than divine experience. I believe this because the same people who attribute the good in life to God have a similar theological understanding when bad things happen. When someone dies it was God’s time to take them, or when a family loses their home God is opening new doors for them. What’s more likely, that a supernatural being arbitrarily blesses some and denies others, or that good and bad things happen to everyone and those that assume God’s existence have a theological understanding for both situations? The occurrences of so-called supernatural provision are nothing more than attributing the good that happens in life to God, not tangible experiences of God.

Another argument put forward as experience of the divine is natural revelation: the encounter of the divine through the natural world. Sam, a surfer friend of mine, told me he experiences God when he is out on the ocean among the waves, taking in the seemingly infinite horizon, and in general being in awe at the size and beauty of nature. We’ve all had similar experiences. Whether we were taking in the immensity of the Grand Canyon or staring open mouthed at the uncountable stars in the night sky, we’ve all been made to feel small and been humbled by the immensity of the natural world. I argue the appropriation of this bigness to God finds its cause in the human inclination to categorize and give meaning to the world around us; what I mean is our species doesn’t deal well with ambiguity and has a natural tendency to give fanciful explanations when truth is not self-evident. For example the old Norsemen needed an explanation of this awe inspiring thunderous sound that came from the sky, so they told each other it was the god Thor smashing his hammer in the heavens. We now know that the exchange of electrons between the atmosphere and the earth happens in the event of a lighting strike, which sends pressure through the air making thunder; the explanation of a seemingly incomprehensible event has been given language through science and thus we discarded the theological explanation. Likewise the Jews gave us a story of the origin of humanity in the first chapters of Genesis where Yahweh created the heavens and the earth, fashioned mankind from dirt, and breathed into them life. We now know that Yahweh had nothing to do with our origins, the world exploded into existence through the big bang, and we evolved slowly and painfully over millions of years. As science continues to give us language and empirical truth about reality, fewer and fewer humans will have a need to attribute the awe-inspiring complexity of the world to God. Theological explanations are reflexive and traditional, meaning it’s what we’ve always said; as science more completely permeates our culture with its explanations, we will eventually abandon the theological explanations all together. Simply put, natural revelation is not evidence of God, but rather evidence of the great lengths humans will go to make sense of a complex world.

The final category of divine experience is direct revelation: this is the category where people claim to have directly seen, smelled, tasted, heard, and/or touched God. We can subdivide this into two smaller categories: direct revelation of the bible and direct revelation of today. In the bible we read of a God who from time to time would reveal himself to humanity in extremely tangible ways: as a the pillar of fire in the desert, as blinding glory revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, as risen from the grave bearing mortal wounds, as tongues of fire descending on the early church, etc. The only point to make here is the most obvious: God doesn’t do this sort of thing anymore. How many people reading this post have seen Yahweh, the risen Christ, or had tongues of fire descend on them? I think it’s very telling that Pentecostals (the denomination that claims to receive direct revelation from the Holy Spirit in the form of prophecy and divine utterance) are generally treated as a crazy sect by the rest of Christianity. Why? Because, unlike the Pentecostals, most followers of God don’t believe in the God they read about in the bible; they believe in a mitigated God, or “God light”. “God light” behaves much differently than the God of the bible: God of the bible parted the Red Sea, “God light” gives fuzzy warm feelings when the lighting and music are right; God of the bible sent fire from heaven burning water soaked bulls proving he was the one true god, “God light” helps us make decisions in a way that is hardly distinguishable from our own autonomy, morality, and common sense. The point is Christians’ expectation of the reality of God has lessened considerably from the God expressed in the bible because they know he is not real in the way they read in scripture. This is a step in the right direction; I’m simply taking it a bit further and saying he never manifested himself in any way whatsoever, because he was never real in the first place.

On the issue of direct revelation of today, it’s fairly commonplace to hear the phrases, “I think the God is telling me…” “The Holy Spirit is teaching me…” in Evangelical circles. On the surface this can sound like God is whispering in his followers’ ears. From my own experience, when I pressed people making this claim to explain what they meant (including a couple prominent pastors of a local churches) all they really mean is they are following a gut-feeling, or an intuition. Like I said before this so-called “leading of the Holy Spirit” seemed hardly discernible from what these people knew to be right anyways. On the issue of those who have claimed to have seen, smelled, tasted, touched, and/or felt God through some theophanic encounter: most of them are locked up in padded rooms or are the lead pastors of Pentecostal congregations. That is all.


  1. Hi, Andy!

    Since you guys are presenting this as a discussion / debate, I don't want to preempt what Adam has to say by critiquing your argument. Just commenting to say that I am reading and very interested in what you both have to say!

  2. Dive in, Darren. I don't mind my thunder, I mean Thor's hammer swing, being stolen.

  3. Well, one important word that was left out in your account on how we came into existence is THEORY. It is called the Big Bang Theory, not the Big Bang Fact. And the odds of this theory being true equate with turning over a box of random puzzle pieces and they all land in the exact places to create a picture, and thus most scientists today have discredited this theory.

  4. Hey Josh. Long time no "Ulrich, No!"

    While I agree that the notion of a big bang as explanatory for the existence of anything is absurd apart from a supernatural rationality, will, and initiation behind it, I'd challenge the notion that "most scientists today have discredited this theory." Where do you get that information?

  5. Well, due to the "Rise and Fall" of this belief...haha that has nothing to do with anything but i wanted to say it.....

    But in my life experiences so far and research i have seen on the internet it seems to me that most people have changed their views on the big bang theory. It isnt seen anymore as something that is true, but something that kinda maybe sorta could of happened.

    But hey, i can see what you mean. i dont really have much knowledge of the subject, its more of my opinion. But also, there isnt much factual evidence to support the big bang theory either. It all basically comes down to belief, if you believe in what the scientists believe, or what you yourself have come to believe through your life experiences. so what im trying to say is there isnt any real "this is how the earth began" idea that is known to be fact.

  6. I agree with Adam, as I understand it the Big Bang theory is accepted as the reigning scientific hypothesis of how the universe came into existence and would like to see a specific source to the contrary.

    However let me say two things: First, scientific language always speaks of things in probability; any scientist being true to their discipline will tell you that it is probable that the sun will rise tomorrow from the observation of its regular occurrence and because of the way they understand the earth's motion; they would never say it is fact. Also, empirical science is constrained by the data is can observe; getting empirical information of an event that happened 12-16 billion years ago is a bit problematic and limited. That said, the theory is strengthened, as scientists learn more about the universe. That is to say although it's a theory there is a lot of data that supports the theory of the big bang: the microwave background, Hubble’s constant, etc.

    On the puzzle analogy, this seems to be viewing things backwards. Viewing things from where we’re at with a view to recreate them would be impossible, but so is the most banal of occurrences. Take a pen and throw it on the ground next to your desk. There’s no way you can get close to recreating that event. This doesn’t mean it was intelligently planned. An object was put into motion and a result occurred, a very complicated result. It’s the same situation with the universe: take all matter, space, the four forces, the force of the big bang, and 16 billion years of time and we're a part of the amazingly complex result of all those incalculable variables. You're right in that it's very complicated, but in the same way the event of the pen drop took no intelligent design to occur, neither did we; we’re just complicated.

  7. Andy,

    My critique of your first post is a distinction between that which is and that which is known. What you have marshaled is, I think, a good argument for agnosticism -- but certainly not for atheism.

    From the premise that you have no sense data for God's existence, the conclusion "God does not exist" does not follow. You have no sense data of your own for the existence of Nova Scotia, or the presence of water on Saturn, or that someone named Steve lives in South Africa. But you cannot conclude from this that those things do not exist.

    So you're right in your opening statement -- that the existence of God is thereby suspect -- but not in your firmer statements later on that "God is not real." If by "real" you mean objectively existing, all you have established so far is that you have no immediate sense data for his existence.

    In fact, while the examples I gave are rather mundane and, should you wish to do so, could be verified with a plane (or space shuttle) ticket and your senses, I would suggest that God (at least as Christians understand God) is supposed to be inaccessible to your senses. With those exceptions you mentioned of God's direct revealing of himself to certain people at certain times in Israel's history (exceptions, I think, that prove the rule), God is "wholly Other" than you and me. There is an "infinite qualitative distinction" between Godness and humanness, in Kierkegaard's terms. If we could see God and hear him, he wouldn't be God -- not as Christians understand God, at any rate. So, in a round-about way, our inability to experience God with our senses is evidence for his existence.

  8. Darren,

    Interesting points. I need you to answer two questions before I engage you more fully. Do you believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, or the tooth fairy? If not, how do you know these things aren’t real?

  9. Hey Andy,

    Clearly I don't subscribe to the view that the five senses are the only way to "know" anything. So this can go one of two ways: 1) "Knowing" is defined on your terms, so that God by definition cannot be known (at which point, the theist's case is lost and the debate is over); or 2) "Knowing" is defined more broadly, to include such things as secondhand testimony, or even faith.

    I certainly understand that you would be reluctant to grant something like faith equal standing with knowing vis-a-vis sense data. Normally, that's where I see an impasse in this discussion. God's existence cannot be proved.

    I suspect we've both had this conversation at some point in life, with other people. Maybe we can skip a few steps, or I'll wait until you and Adam get past the prelims.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  10. I can't tell if you dodging or bored with me. Feel free to use whatever mode of knowledge you usually use to answer the question. I think it would be meaningful to compare your reasons for non-belief with mine to show the common ground in our assumptions, not necessarily to show the distinction in our epistemology (although I sense that’s coming soon).

  11. Snydster-
    Thanks for inviting me to this conversation. Darren's not dodging you. He makes the point that I would have made if he hadn't made it first. I don't accept your premise that all knowledge comes from the senses.

    If you want to be technical, sense data is actually quite suspect. How do you know you are not dreaming, or high on LSD? You should try LSD, and then tell me about the reliabilty of your senses... LOL. Just kidding. Sorta.

    There is a lot of "knowledge" that is not based on sense data, math for example. I don't need any senses to know that two plus two is four.

    I also don't need my senses to know that a joke is funny. One can analyze a joke, and explain why its funny, but to do so misses the point and will not make you cool at parties. It sounds like I'm joking, but I'm not. The intuitive understanding that is required to know a joke is funny, is arguably the only form of knowledge that matters at all.

    If Darren is unwilling to answer your questions about the easter bunny and such, I will, but first I have a question for you: How do you know a song is good? ;)


  12. Instead of lsd you could simply watch this video testing awareness to demonstrate your point...women tend to be better at this just a lil fyi.

    or look up necker cube or perceptual anomallies

    has anyone read steven pinker?

    I'm currently reading about why traits like a.d.d. were adventageous to our species. Basically states that people with a.d.d. wondered leading tribes of followers around and people with color blindness are better at picking out camoflaged animals in hunting tribes it revealed a high significance.

    I think of senses as tools for reason to exploit. Reason should be the ultimate guide but I suppose that that is just an opinion. It seems to studying God is simular to the mind. Think of God a factory you can observe what goes in(prayers n stuff [thats latin]) and what comes out (miricles n stuff)...with the use of reason a person is potentially able to figure out what goes on within the factory.

  13. Tedson,

    I agree not all knowledge comes from the senses. The issue is to what degree knowledge comes from the senses and how should the data gained through it (or lack thereof) be brought to bear on the question of the existence of God?

    On the song question, I know a song is good by a few things mixed together: an innate intuition of beauty, my subjective music experience, and my culturally taught musical ideals. My question to you is how do you know a song exists?

  14. Hey Andy thanks for your articulate and honest openness here.

    1) I'm troubled by this "supernatural provision" argument for God's existence too. I am always nervous about this talk in church when it starts to get apologetic, as if it proves God. But let's remember that most times its being talked about it is in the context of people who believe together in God and are celebrating and sharing their experiences of Him. It isn't necessarily meant as an apologetic, as if you should believe in God because the money came in for me to go to seminary or something like that. I can't stand it when people talk like that.

    (That said, even on an apologetic level, such phenomenology of the Christian experience has to at least be taken into consideration on the whole. Sometimes these stories of "provision" are pretty incredible, and sometimes the un-incredible ones are even more impressive for the intimacy of relationship with this God-if-he-exists that they display.)

    2) Natural Revelation talk as proof of God is similar, in my view. Okay someone climbed a mountain and for them it was like touching the face of God. Cool experience, just dont' call it proof about God. What about all the mountains I've climbed without having that spiritual high? We're kind of left grasping at a feeling here.

    That said, same caveat as above: the sense of wonder at existence, things like beauty and so on: on the whole they are compelling reasons to think about and be open to a Creator God if such a God would care to say something specific about Himself.

    As far as origins go, if I concede to a Big Bang it still hasn't told me anything about the origin (as in cause) of the universe. In fact, even when we're talking about how the ear and eye and nose and tongue and sense receptors all work we still haven't touched why the heck matter in the universe would evolve in such incredibly intricate and purposeful ways. Science and faith are not opposed.

    The fact that things work "of their own accord" may be off-setting at first to people who thought in terms of God snapping His fingers to make lightning or to cause mountains to appear where plains once were, but once we get over that we find such intricacy in nature neither proof nor disproof, just cause for further wonder and thought about the "theory of everything".

  15. Oh boy I'm long winded. Sorry.

    3) I can also relate to both your desire for and reaction to the claims of "direct revelation". But like someone said above, I think such things are the exception to the rule, and by and large would agree with your take on the "God light" obsession of many Pentecostals. (I want to be careful to say that without writing off the lot of them, or the possibility of pentecostal experiences).

    Don't get me wrong, it would be a lot easier if God walked into my room right now and said Hey hows it going. Or would it? I can think of two negative possibilities if it worked that way. One is that I would find all sorts of ways to doubt that it was, you know, really God. The other is that there would be no room for doubt and I would be totally annhialated or dissoved in transcendence. And what good would my sense experience be then? Could I argue for God's existence with others by telling them about it? No they'd all have to meet God the same way. So then when we all swapped stories, how would we know what we'd experienced wasn't just part of the human experience, an inner projection, or whatever? So much room for doubt.

    But, frankly, we have to want a particular, special revelation of God. Otherwise we really are grasping at straws. So why not a special revelation of Godself in time in a particular person? A man? Why not? And not just any man, but one who speaks and acts as if the embodiment of a whole nation's beliefs and hopes, and so on?

    And to boot this man sets up a community that will perpetuate his story, passing it on both in text and in communal life (imperfect as it is). Perhaps this account of God's self-revelation is a facade; untrue; but it certainly isn't lacking in sensory value or particularity. Reject them if you want but there is a Bible to hold and hear, there is this crazy tradition of baptism and Supper to eat and taste and feel and think about, and there is a whole history of what people have done with it, for good or bad. God's special revelation may have left room for doubt, but it isn't simply ethereal.

    My two or three cents. But I should back away and look on for awhile now. Thanks for the discussion.