In a discussion recently, someone asserted that a belief that God exists is on the same level as a belief that God doesn’t exist; that these are logical equivalences. I don’t think that’s true, and here’s why.
In 1742, George Frideric Händel—a migrant, as we would now say, from Saxony to England—composed his oratorio, Messiah (not The Messiah), a reflection on the supposed life of Jesus Christ. Händel used a text, in English, prepared for him by Charles Jennens from the King James version of the Bible and the Book of common prayer (two of the greatest works of English literature).
At the beginning of the third part, the soprano soloist sings an aria [*1]:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand
at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
(Job 19: 25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
(I Corinthians 15: 20)
What does she mean by “know”? The book of Job was likely written in the sixth century BCE [*2], six hundred years before the widely accepted birth date of Jesus, whom Jennens and Händel are implying is the Redeemer, both by the inclusion of this text in the oratorio in the first place and by the addition of a line from I Corinthians explicitly referring to Jesus.
My point is that: whether the singer is being the author of the text and to be presumed to be singing in the sixth century BCE; or whether she is singing in the seventeenth century, at the time the King James Bible was written; or in the eighteenth century, at the time of writing Messiah; or at any point in between or after; she has no evidence whatever that Jesus is alive at the time of her performance, that he shall stand upon the earth “at the latter day” (ie, the ‘day of judgment’), and that, even though by then she shall be dead and worms shall have destroyed her body, nevertheless she shall be reconstituted as a fleshly person to see her god.
It’s all conjecture.
I wouldn’t even call it a hypothesis as there is nothing on which to base it.
It’s a belief, based on the need of the believer to believe it. She probably believes it’s true because she was told by someone she trusts (her father, her pastor?) that it was true. She probably also believes it is true because it is written in the Bible; but that, of course, is a highly suspect path to go down.
It’s 10pm right now. I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. If the sky is cloudy, I may not be able to see it rise, but the light shining through the clouds will give me a hint; and, if I felt like testing this hypothesis, I could ascend in a suitable vehicle above the clouds to have a look.
Humankind, over the millennia, has compiled vast quantities of evidence documenting the motions of the ‘celestial bodies’ as they are observed from our planet’s surface. A strong pattern emerges which suggests that the earth rotates on its own axis, that the moon orbits the earth, that the earth, with the moon in tow, orbits the sun. These ideas, and the associated observations, suggest a model of how this might happen.
Mathematics is brought in to predict, on the basis of the hypothetical model, what might happen tomorrow, next month, next year, based on what is recorded as having happened in the past. In time, these predictions are validated. Over centuries, thousands of predictions are made and they are all validated. (Some turn out to be wrong due to errors of observation, of course.)
The likelihood that the model is true becomes ever stronger and it starts to be used as the basis for ventures such as the launching of satellites and trips to the moon, none of which would succeed were the model wrong.
Stand in the middle of the room. Notice something in the room that is stationary; preferably something big, such as a beach ball (preferably orange). Stand so that the beach ball is just out of sight to your right. Now start turning on the spot clockwise, facing ahead at all times.
The beach ball come into view on your far right (the east). As you continue to turn, notice the beach ball crosses your field of view from right to left until, eventually, it disappears from view out of the corner of your left eye (the west). That is precisely how it appears that the sun goes around the earth when in fact it is we, on the earth, who are turning and the sun is stationary relative to us.
(And, incidentally, this is nothing to do with whether the sun is or is not at the centre of the solar system: the explanation above works wherever the sun is provided the earth maintains a fixed spatial relationship to it.)
We are so close to being certain that the sun shall rise tomorrow that simply asserting that it shall is close enough to reality as makes no difference. So, I can say, I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. There is no point in anyone saying (let alone feeling they have to say), ‘I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow’ because the knowledge that it shall is out there—verifiable, repeatable, explicable and just there—and easily accessible to boot. The knowledge trumps the belief.
Such a belief is unnecessary, redundant. The sun will rise tomorrow whether you or I believe it or not.
The belief of the lady that her redeemer liveth is wholly limited to her. It has no value to anyone else (it might be an aperçu, interesting and perhaps cherishable by those who are fond of her, but no more).
Nobody else’s redeemer liveth for them as a result: they would have to generate that belief for themselves. Of course, many don’t bother, they just take this as a matter of faith: that’s the whole point of religion. But the fact that a lot of people take on faith a statement, for which noone has any evidence, doesn’t make it true.
And just because they all feel a bit better because they do, doesn’t make it true either.
There are other types of knowing.
We ‘know’ that 2 + 2 = 4—although that is really just an inference from axioms that, by definition, are accepted as true. (It took Bertrand Russell 300 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2 [*3].)
We know that grass is green—though that’s a matter of definition (and we don’t actually know that we all see the same colour when we look at the same patch of grass); and, anyway, dead grass is yellow-brown.
We know that the angles of a triangle add up to 180º. Except that they don’t:
Imagine a traveller at the north pole. She journeys down a line of longitude until she hits the equator, whereupon she turns left (one right angle). She journeys along the equator for a quarter of its length and then turns left up a line of longitude ( a second right angle).
When she reaches the pole, she finds the line of longitude she is now on is at a third right angle from the line she started on. (In the illustration, right, she travels from c to a to b and back to c.)
In this case the lines down which she travelled were straight lines for her, as anyone who has flown intercontinentally knows *. But, the geometry of the curved two dimensional space of the surface of the sphere on which she travels differs from that of the flat two dimensional space space which people assume when they assert that the angles of a triangle add up to 180º.
And, finally, I know that if I drop this glass of wine, it will hit the floor and the wine will extend over a surprisingly large area of the carpet.
So, to summarise so far, there are some things which we can just be confident we know. It is not necessary for us to believe them: there is enough evidence, knowledge and understanding to show that it is wholly reasonable to assert that we can know them—even though we should specify the domain within which the knowledge applies (stated axioms, living grass, flat Euclidean space).
If we choose to believe them as well, that’s for us. It doesn’t help us, or anyone else. It’s strictly redundant, in their same way that a ship announcing its position as X degrees west and Y degrees north and 200 miles from Lisbon is giving some redundant information: only two pieces of information are needed to uniquely define the position of the boat, provided neither can be extrapolated from the other (because the surface of a sphere is two dimensional, for all that the sphere itself is three dimensional).
I assert that the statement, “I believe that God exists”, is in the same category as knowing/believing that one’s redeemer liveth. At its core is a statement (“God exists”) for which there is simply no evidence. It is the opposite of knowing that 1 + 1 = 2.
As for “I believe that God does not exist” (which is much preferable to “I don’t believe that God exists”, because it is always harder to talk about negatives, so talking about what we don’t believe leaves most of us floundering), I suggest that:
Every phenomenon—however loosely one uses that word—which is, or could be, ascribed to the agency of a deity, can actually be explained fully by recourse to known simpler models which have been developed and tested, repeatedly, and not yet found wanting without recourse to supernatural agencies **.
In other words, it is pointless to demand that one ‘knows these things [such as Redeemers living and the rest] are true’ because it is actually possible to know a simpler explanation. We don’t need to know that our Redeemer liveth in order to explain something, when there is a simpler, more plausible and, crucially, a verifiable explanation.
In this, I am following William of Ockham (c1285-1349) who suggested:
It is pointless to do with more what can be done with fewer (aka ‘Ockham’s razor’)
In other words, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected” [*4].
The ancient Greeks believed, or liked to believe, that the sun god, Helios, drove across the heavens in his chariot (the general idea being that the visible sun emanated from his head, as depicted in this impressive ceiling mural).
Everyone today would use Ockham’s razor to reject this explanation because noone has found any other phenomena which require the postulation of, let alone hint at, the existence of Helios, his chariot and horses, or any other deities resident on Mount Olympus. It is superfluous, indeed pointless, to invoke the existence of such a deity in this one case when we have a much simpler and wholly satisfactory explanation.
Of course, there are plenty of things which humankind has not explained (and others which we think we have explained but currently have got wrong): what is, and where is, the ‘seat’ of consciousness, for a start. But, the last two centuries have revealed an ever increasing understanding of how stuff works. We now have the ‘God of the gaps’: the proposition that God exists because there is some (as yet) unexplained stuff. Invented by Christian theologians, it smacks of the last desperate attempt to impose theism on rationality.
There Is a Latin proverb, Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur which Christopher Hitchens paraphrased as:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
We could, entirely reasonably, choose to dismiss this belief without further discussion (ie, the belief that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and so on). However, I suggest it is a useful belief, one worth holding, because it provides a sense of proportion, of scale. If someone is demanding that we accept an outrageous proposition (and that we would perhaps suffer by not doing so), we are entitled to dismiss their proposition if they cannot rustle up any evidence for it. This is really common sense. If something is so important, but has no foundations, is it realistic?
If there is no phenomenon which requires the postulation of a supernatural being as the simplest explanation for it, I cannot help but conclude that the need to postulate the existence of a supernatural being is redundant.
Thus, “I believe that God does not exist” is as redundant and unnecessary an expression of belief as “I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow”. People are welcome to hold this belief, of course; but, if they think it is helping them, they might find it enlightening to orientate themselves more strongly around what humankind knows; because they really don’t need it.
“There is no God” is a statement imbued with knowledge, evidence and experience. It lacks for nothing.
* Actually that’s a bit glib. In mathematics, they are straight because they are geodesics: the shortest paths between two points, paths a beam of light confined to that space would travel in. On a sphere, specifically the earth, they are referred to as ‘great circles’ [*5].
** And, when I say, “found wanting” I mean in the sense that Newton’s law seemed to be eclipsed by Einstein’s work. In fact what happened was that Einstein showed that Newton’s laws were as accurate as could be measured by the manmade instruments available when Newton was working and which applied to relatively low velocities; Newton’s laws were, and are, effectively correct, but with in a restricted domain.
Einstein’s laws simply expanded the range over which mathematics could be applied (the ‘domain’ as it is called). Use Einstein’s laws to get to the moon and you’d get the same result, to with an fraction of a millimetre, as you would get (and was got) with Newton’s laws.
[*1] for example, Lynne Dawson [Youtube]
[*2] The Book of Job [Wikipedia]
[*3] in Principia mathematica (1910-13) . Story of mathematics article [external link]
[*4] Occam’s razor [Wikipedia]
[*5] Great circles [Wikipedia]