Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

The Big Picture

We live in a world where it’s possible to question the very existence of God, even the supernatural altogether. Our world also contains many religions that, more often than not, tend to break out along ethnic and cultural boundaries. Most of these religions claim to be the one true way to win the “game” of life — whether that’s through reaching enlightenment, receiving salvation, etc.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say that there really is a God, and he’s given us one of these religions that we’re supposed to follow. As most of these religions teach, picking the wrong belief system will result in horrible punishment that is likely to last an eternity. I already see lots of problems with this scenario, but let’s ignore those for the moment.

How are we supposed to know which religion is the true one?

We’re not born with the luxury of knowing about all these religions from a young age. Instead, each of us is raised to believe that one of the options (or none of them) is the truth, so it’s not until we’re adults that we really begin to learn more about the wider world. And at that point, we have a lot of preconceived notions to overcome. But luckily, these religions usually teach that God is a benevolent being that wants every single one of us to find the path to him, so we can reasonably expect that he’ll help us find a way to him.

The most direct way to communicate something to someone is to speak to them directly. So God could choose that method to let us know what he expects of us. If you’re into video games, this is similar to the tutorial dialogs that pop up in your game to let you know the rules. It’s a helpful tool. You can still press whatever buttons you like, but at least you’ll know what’s expected.

Of course, God doesn’t do that for us. Fair enough — what’s another method he could use? Ah, he could send us some kind of “cosmic email” — writing in the sky, or something like that. You know, something that would be nigh impossible for another person to fake. The message would be accompanied by the kind of sign that would give us assurance we’re dealing with the divine. The burning bush, Gideon’s fleece, Paul’s episode on the road to Damascus, etc.

But if God does this kind of thing today, he’s not ubiquitous with it. I’ve never received a sign like that, nor have most people that I’ve ever known. I guess that’s his prerogative, but it does make one question the Bible’s passages that say God is impartial. But I’m starting to digress…

So maybe God could send us some trusted messenger. It would need to be someone that I know well, so I could really trust what they’re saying. But again, I’ve never gotten such a message, and I also know that even well meaning people can sometimes be delusional. I’m not sure I want to risk my soul on such a message delivery system.

So God could send a messenger imbued with divine powers, someone that could work miracles that could only come from God. I would listen to an individual who could do the kinds of miracles that the Bible describes, but I’ve never seen anyone do them.

However, the Bible is a religious text that claims God did use this method a long time ago. Isn’t that just as good as witnessing the miracles for myself? Not for me. Thomas Paine said that once you tell a divine revelation to someone else, it ceases to be revelation and becomes mere hearsay. I have to agree. For me to accept the word of a religious text, the text would have to be incredibly amazing. The writers would have to demonstrate knowledge of things that they couldn’t possibly have known about ahead of time. When events are recounted in multiple places within the text, they must be without error or contradiction. When science is recounted, it must be without error — not simply a regurgitation of what was already known at the time. Its morals must be without reproach. If it gives prophecies, they must be without error.

If those standards seem too high, then maybe you aren’t truly considering what’s at stake. The soul of everyone who has ever lived hinges on the judgments of this God. Each and every soul should be just as precious to him as the souls of your own children are to you. Would you leave the fate of their souls up to chance, or would you do everything within your power to save them from eternal torture (or punishment, or annihilation — whatever your particular flavor teaches)? If you saw a windowless van pull up to your child and watched the driver coax them to come closer, would you stand back to see how your child reacts, or would you run to them as fast as you could, calling them back all the while? You don’t have to answer, because I know what you would do — you’d do what any decent human would do. Why doesn’t God do the same for us? If I’m currently bound for Hell, and I’m influencing my innocent children to eventually follow in my footsteps, why doesn’t God intervene to help us?

And before you say he does just that through scripture, the Bible fails every one of the criteria I listed out. In fact, I’m not aware of any religious text that comes close to meeting those standards. If we accept that God is loving, merciful, and just, then it does not follow that he would be the author of the Bible. I’d be happy to cite specific examples of the Bible’s failings, but I’ve written way too much already. Luckily, I have links to those examples on my home page.

It’s God’s overwhelming hiddenness that sounds the death knell on religion for me. As Delos McKown has said:

The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

292 thoughts on “The Big Picture”

  1. Well said Nate. If ‘God’ exists then ‘God’ could have made it easy but ‘God’ did not.

    Some say that nature and the universe is evidence, (which I dispute) but just suppose it it, this still does not help to know which ‘God’ is the creator.

    Since I have deconverted I have continued to study the Bible and now shake my head and wonder how I ever saw it as a divine creation. But in reality I know why I did, my presupposition told me it was a divine creation so I read it that way and made excuses for ‘God’ along the way.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Hi Nate, interesting post.

    Basically, your thoughts here follow the pattern of: “I find these things inconsistent with theism, therefore theism is less likely to be true.” I think that is a reasonable argument as far as it goes. But if you are truly looking at “the big picture”, you need to look at both sides of the question. It may be that the facts make theism look unlikely to you, but perhaps the facts also make atheism look unlikely, perhaps even more unlikely.

    Your argument is based on your guess at what God is doing, and thus what you judge to be inappropriate. But by definition it is unlikely that we would be able to guess God’s motivations – an anaerobic bacterium might be less distant from us than we are from God, and therefore more able to understand us than we are able to understand God. So while your guesses are reasonable, they have a high degree of unlikelihood. I’m not trying to argue against your guesses, just pointing out their status.

    Compared to our understanding of God, our understanding of human beings and our universe is much better. So we can pose a group of questions about people and the universe that should also inform “the big picture”. Here are a few that come to mind (I may think of more):

    1. Why do you think so many people believe in God if there is none? It is still the majority in the world, and it includes many intelligent, well-educated, even expert and genius type people. Studies show that converts are more likely to be more educated than average, and the greatest growth in theistic belief is not in theistic countries (that is mathematically obvious when you think about it) but in previously non-theistic countries like China and some other Asian countries. Tradition, delusion, etc, don’t explain all that. So why do so many convert and others still believe?

    2. Why do neurological and psychological studies (ask me to reference them!) show consistently, though not of course totally, that religious believers’ brains are operating well, often better than non-believers, and their mental, emotional and physical health is, on average better? These results suggest that believers are not thinking and living worse, but at least as well and possibly better than non-believers, and thus more psychologically and neurologically likely to be getting right answers. If we are trying to explain religious belief, we need to factor these findings in.

    3. Why do literally hundreds of millions of people believe they have been healed after praying to the christian God? Are they all deluded, suffering wish fulfilment, or something? Do you think the stories are generally untrue, or do you think there is a natural explanation for them all?

    4. How did it happen that a universe exists without cause (if your belief is correct), yet is “finely-tuned” to an exceptional degree to exist for long enough and to be structured in such a way that it allows intelligent life to evolve? Your answer in the past (if I recall correctly) has been simply that you are comfortable with not knowing the answers to these questions. But if not knowing is an acceptable answer (I don’t think it is) then your whole post could similarly be answered that a believer is comfortable with not knowing!

    That’s enough for one comment! I hope you address all these questions in another post on “the big picture”, and then do a third post on how the two sides stack up. Doubtless we still won’t agree, but we would have a rounded discussion to consider. Thanks.

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  3. May I ask what it is that you mean when you say god? For instance, #4 is an apophatic argument. Those are strong only if they are necessary.
    The circumstance in # 3 is a positive characterization, even if we take divine interventions as brute facts one and all – they participate in an explanation in a standard way, occurring as they do at a time and place. That would place them in a ‘weird but natural’ category.

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  4. Hi unkleE,

    As always, thanks for chiming in!

    Your argument is based on your guess at what God is doing, and thus what you judge to be inappropriate. But by definition it is unlikely that we would be able to guess God’s motivations – an anaerobic bacterium might be less distant from us than we are from God, and therefore more able to understand us than we are able to understand God.

    I guess this depends on the god in question. For all I know, there might really be a god out there. My argument is really against the gods of revealed religions, Christianity in particular. The Bible makes many claims about this god, and to me, that makes it easier to weigh in on the likelihood of his existence.

    This god supposedly wants all people to believe in him. And since he supposedly created us, then my ability to believe in him doesn’t actually depend very much on my ability to understand him. It’s simple deduction: having created us, this god would know what’s necessary for us to believe in him, but he doesn’t seem to have done that. That’s irrational, and that makes him less believable to me. He’s not catering to the limitations that he gave us. It’s like expecting a lame person to climb a flight of stairs.

    1) There may be many reasons why most people believe in a god and/or the supernatural. I think culture does play a lot into it. The fact that we’re pattern-seeking creatures and that we crave explanations for things also factors in heavily, in my opinion. But even if there’s some more supernatural reason for this continued belief, it would take a lot of work to connect the dots from that to the god of Christianity.

    2) I’ve never said religious people are crazy or stupid. Far from it. I mean, I was very religious for a long time, myself, and I don’t think I’m either of those things! Often, I think religious people don’t apply the same critical thinking skills to their religious beliefs as they do to the other aspects of their lives. I’m sure you know a number of Christians who really haven’t put much time into exploring their faith, but continue to identify with it because it’s comfortable, because it fits with their family or culture, etc. Obviously not all religious people are that way, but in my experience, it seems to apply to a fairly large percentage.

    I know there are other factors at play too, but there’s nothing in this particular bullet point that gives me pause. And just like number 1, even if there’s something supernatural going on here, it doesn’t connect it to a specific god.

    3) Well, we know that belief and outlook factors heavily into health. Patients who believe they can beat an illness (for whatever reason) tend to fare better than those who think it’s going to be their undoing. Now if we take it a step further and talk about miraculous healings, I haven’t run across any that have seemed compelling to me. I haven’t studied it to the extent that you have, but I have studied it. So far, I’m not convinced. But once again, how would this connect us to a particular god?

    4) I disagree with your conclusion on this one. Unless we slide into solipsism, we know that we’re here in this existence. That’s sort of a starting point for getting our bearings. Christianity is not the same. It’s not a belief one needs in order to just survive here. So starting out, we know that we’re here, but we don’t know how or why (or if “why” is even relevant). So Christianity comes along and suggests a reason. Fair enough… but how do we go about testing that claim? I think there are lots of ways, like the ones I laid out in the post above as well as most of the other posts I’ve written on this blog. Christianity needs to be able to stand up against rigorous scrutiny, and a reasonable defense is not “I can’t explain these problems, but it’s just true anyway!”

    Existence is different. Again, barring something like solipsism, we can say “I don’t know how I got here, but I at least know I’m here.” Christianity doesn’t get the same pass. Existence is something almost all of us can agree on; Christianity is not.

    But once again, even if existence and fine-tuning were strong enough arguments to warrant belief in god, how do you get from generic god to specific god?

    I think that’s the real question. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that a god really does exist. Now how do you move from that to the Christian god? [resurrection, I assume…?]

    Liked by 2 people

  5. @ unkleE

    “1. Why do you think so many people believe in God if there is none?”
    There you go with numbers again. Majority does not always equal probability

    “2. Why do neurological and psychological studies (ask me to reference them!) show consistently, though not of course totally, that religious believers’ brains are operating well, often better than non-believers, and their mental, emotional and physical health is, on average better?”
    I can’t believe you’re still using this. People who belong to most social organizations also experience this. The Elk’s Club, Sertoma, JayCee’s , etc.

    “3. Why do literally hundreds of millions of people believe they have been healed after praying to the christian God?”
    What about the other half who don’t receive a miracle ???

    “4. How did it happen that a universe exists without cause (if your belief is correct), yet is “finely-tuned” to an exceptional degree to exist for long enough and to be structured in such a way that it allows intelligent life to evolve?”
    Because you and most religious people look at time in a tiny snapshot rather than the 13.8 billion years it took before humans entered the picture. The Sun is burning out. The Earth will burn up. Fine tuning ? In what time frame ?

    I look at religion as the inability and/or arrogance for man to come to grips with , “this is all there is” When religion teaches that you have a 2nd chance (afterlife) , I believe it takes away your desire to make this life the best you can. If I’m wrong ? Great ! Bonus Round ! 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Sorry unkleE — I meant to say one more thing.

    But if not knowing is an acceptable answer (I don’t think it is)

    But sometimes it’s the only true answer. For instance, what’s the name of my cat?

    Liked by 4 people

  7. John 5:14* ¶ And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: 5:15* And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
    Matthew 7:7* Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: Hebrews 11:6* But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. John 15:7* If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

    I believe all these verses and love all these verses and therefore when I pray I get results. I have sought God, repented of my sins, been baptized in the name of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit of God, and had many of my prayers answered because I know when to pray and what to pray for. How about you?

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  8. Yep, I did all that too, Charles. I spent time reaching out to my friends who were lost, trying to lead them to salvation. Even succeeded in several cases. I lived it.

    But then I hit a point where all the pieces didn’t seem to fit together as well as I had thought they did. And then I started to find out that the Bible wasn’t as accurate as I had always thought it was. And it started to make sense to me why some prayers seemed to be answered and some didn’t — and that in every one of those cases, nothing happened that couldn’t have happened naturally. It started to make more sense why thousands could be wiped out in natural disasters and why children can die from disease, starvation, and violence. And I started to understand why history, archaeology, and science sometimes made the Bible look so crazy. And before long, I came to understand that Christianity has one major thing in common with all other religions: it’s man-made.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. If God doesn’t answer your prayers, what do you do about it? I fast until God gives me an answer. Many times His Answer is No. Many times His answer is Yes. But God answers all of my prayers.

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  10. You know that mankind has freewill, because without it nobody can love God and his son Jesus Christ, or any one else for that matter. And because mankind has freewill, and much pride and jealousy and hatred and lust and stupidity, that is why the world is so messed up. BTW praying for people to get saved, unless God specifically tells you to pray for someone, is a waste of time. Paul didn’t ask for God to save anybody that I know of, but asked to be given the chance to tell people how to get saved. God wants people to love him according to their own free will. I have two stepchildren, and three step grandchildren. I don’t pray that God would save them. I tell them how to get saved, and ask God to protect them so they can make the choice for themselves. I pray for them when they get sick and God heals them. I mean, I anoint them with oil and say, “Be healed in Jesus name. Jesus Christ maketh you whole.” And he always does. I have witnessed to probably over three thousand souls over the past 39 years and told the people to repent of their sins, get baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of their sins and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost(spirit) and to live for God. About 50 did what I told them to do. Probably 5 are still living for God. I would say that not many people want to get saved these days, at least not around Sierra Vista, AZ. Of course many think the are saved and attend probably 150 churches in the area. Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Methodists, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Assembly of God, Church of God, Salvation Army, and so many more churches, I can’t name them all. But they are all lost. They think that if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord you will be saved. But Peter told us what to do on that first day of the church, the day of pentecost, in Jerusalem, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Amen

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  11. Took me a minute to realize that ‘Charles’ isn’t the same fellow we are accustomed to, on this blog. 🙂
    To this Charles, I would suggest the following- your message, no matter how passionate you feel about it – is falling on deaf ears. If we wanted a sermon, we’d still all be attending church on Sundays. As someone more famous than me said, “You go ahead and pray for us – we’ll THINK for you”

    Liked by 4 people

  12. One of the big assumptions that Christians make is that the evidence for a Creator is evidence for Yahweh-Jesus. There is no good evidence for this assumption.

    I agree that the existence of inviolable natural laws is strong evidence for a Creator (or Creators) but whoever this Creator is, he/she/they/it seems to have ordained that our universe is a closed system in which the natural laws are not violated. Not one miracle has ever been confirmed and eyewitness testimony has proven to be very unreliable. People who want to see UFO’s often see them; and the same may very well be true for those praying for a miracle.

    Until Christians come up with better evidence for Yahweh-Jesus being the Creator, I say we all should allow for the possible existence of a Creator, but not assume the existence of a Creator. Let’s do more research before we start making assumptions and drawing conclusions.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Charles, I’ve got to echo Carmen’s sentiments. Right now, the bulk of your comments are really just evangelism. You’re preaching to us from a source that we don’t believe in or agree with. In other words, you’re skipping over the most important step: demonstrating why we should care what your source says. What evidence is there that the Bible is actually inspired by God?

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  14. 7:16-17 “Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” I tried it and found it to be true and of God. The just shall live by his faith. Why are you people still living. You must think I’m a fool. I’m not as foolish as the person who says “there is no God.” The Bible states that “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”” psalm 14:1.

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  15. Sure, that’s what the Bible says. We disagree with it.

    I tried it and found it to be true and of God.

    We’ve tried it as well and found the opposite. Is there something more objective we can look at other than just our own personal experiences? After all, Muslims rely on their personal experiences to justify Islam. Mormons rely on their personal experiences to justify Mormonism. And the Methodists and Baptists that you think aren’t true Christians rely on their personal experiences, too. So who’s right, and how can you tell?

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  16. “But sometimes it’s the only true answer. For instance, what’s the name of my cat?”

    Haha Nate! I appreciated this answer, so I had to respond to it first!

    I’ll be radical and guess you don’t have a cat! So perhaps the required name is Schrodinger!

    Yes, of course we can always say “I don’t know”, and if we don’t, it is only right to say so. But I was speaking in the context of an argument (as in your post) that certain apparent facts are better explained by the view that God isn’t there, than that he is. In this sort of argument, we are saying that one explanation of the facts is better, i.e. it is more reasonable, than the other.

    In that context, anyanswer is better, i.e. more reasonable, than no answer!

    So if you are forced by the facts to say you have no answer for how the universe exists and is “fine-tuned”, then you are admitting that at that point your view that God doesn’t exist is less reasonable than the view that God does exist, because theism does provide an answer.

    So then it comes down to whether the number of things that theism struggles to explain exceeds the number of things atheism struggles to explain, or not. And that of course is the point I was making, and will come back to when I respond to your larger comment.

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  17. Hi keithnoback, I don’t think I’ve come across you before. Welcome to Nate’s blog if you are new, and hello anyway.

    I must admit I had to look up “apophatic” in the dictionary. But I don’t think that is what I think. I believe we can know some positive things about God, but that there is much we don’t know too, presumably much more. I suppose a vague analogy might be the study of a particular field of history – say the Roman Empire. A historian could be an expert in Roman history, and they would know a little about Jewish history, archaeology, Medieval history, carbon dating, etc, and know nearly nothing of Chinese history or the Syriac language. They know a lot about a few things, a little about a few more things and virtually nothing about a lot of other things.

    I think it is that way about us and God. And so I was suggesting to Nate that it wasn’t “the big picture” to build an argument on difficult questions about a possible God we can’t know every well and ignore a bunch of difficult questions about the human race and the universe which we have the potential to know so much better.

    So what would your answers be to my questions?

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  18. “there’s nothing in this particular bullet point that gives me pause”

    Hello again Nate, I wanted to respond to your larger comment, by commenting on this point.

    I have done some (not a lot of) reading on “alternative”, apparently “spiritual”, experiences – supernatural healing, visions, mysticism, NDEs, psi, etc. One of the books (“Visions of Jesus” by philosophy professor Phillip Wiebe) examines the experiences of 30+ people who report seeing visions of Jesus, which led to deeper faith, conversion, healing, solution of personal problems etc. He examines all the possible explanations, which fall into three categories – supernatural, psychological and neurological – and finds that no one explanation fits the facts.

    If I had asked atheists here and elsewhere about these visions, they would likely have said they were hallucinations caused by stress, delusions, or something of that nature. That would be an easy explanation to give and dismiss the experiences. But when looked at in more detail, those explanations don’t appear to stand up, for many of the reports at least.

    So my comment wasn’t so much trying to present an argument, but an attempt to stretch your thinking a little by asking you questions.

    You and I seem to think similarly in some ways, and I think we could easily be friends if we lived in the same town. But we conclude very differently about God and christianity and I find that an interesting topic to explore. My tentative conclusion is not that we think differently, but that you focus on different things to me.

    In this case you have focused on negative things (as you see them) about God, but not focused at all on the negative things about atheism. And when I raise a number of questions, you give an answer that I think doesn’t cut it because, as I have said about Phillip Wiebe, it is easy to give quick answers that don’t in fact stand the greater scrutiny that you give to the negative side.

    So rather than argue my four points, I’m interested to see if you’d be willing to do a full post, properly researched, on the questions I asked. Not quickly, but sometime. That’s up to you, of course, but I think it might be worthwhile. Thanks, and best wishes.

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  19. “how do you get from generic god to specific god?”

    I didn’t answer this before, because it is a quite different topic, and too large to answer in a comment. But briefly ….

    1. If the various questions, observations and arguments about the universe, humanity and human experience lead to a belief in God (as I think), they also lead to some conclusions about the characteristics of that God. These point to something like the christian God.

    2. Yes, we move from theism to christianity, or not, on the basis of the New Testament, based on what the historians tell us, and our response in faith (or not) to those facts.

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  20. Hi Ken,

    You misunderstood my comment slightly, I think. I was not presenting arguments but asking questions. And as I have just said to Nate, it is easy to come up with quick answers to those questions, but they don’t always fit the facts.

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  21. “What negative things???”

    The things it can’t explain. If you feel in the mood, you might like to answer the four questions I asked Nate.

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