Re-Defining Atheism

Here is my list of all the various terms used by nonbelievers to describe themselves.  Among these, “atheist” vs “agnostic” are frequently debated.  To many, the nuances of  “atheist” appear overly certain and the nuances of “agnostic” appear too wishy-washy.  To address this dilemma, Mano Singham steps up to the plate.  Singham is an atheist blogger & author (here) and a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University.   Here is the definition he offers in the new issue of The New Humanist:

Atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.

I like this definition — it allows many otherwise wishy-washy folks to call themselves “atheists”.  However, I would like to offer a broader definition at the risk of again narrowing the ranks of self-proclaimed atheists.

Atheist: One for whom supernatural entities are unnecessary explanatory concepts.

Of course this puts off the debate into the definition of “supernatural” but I didn’t want to make the definition too long.   Nonetheless certainly “supernatural” is helpful because it obviously would include spirits, ghosts, fairies, gods, demons, angels and all those familiar entities. “Supernatural” would also include celestial Boddhisattvas and the Dharmakaya embraced by even the most modern Buddhists, not to mention that demons, ghouls, devas, devis and other formless beings in traditional Buddhism.

Anyway, I thought the notion of “unnecessary explanatory concept” was wonderful. What do you think?

84 Comments

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84 responses to “Re-Defining Atheism

  1. Cyberkitten

    I like your broader definition better. Certainly from my point of view an Atheist wouldn’t need any supernatural agency – including God – as an explanation for things in the real world.

  2. @ Cyberkitten
    Thanks. I think when the word is used derogatorily, it is meant to say, “She does not believe in God and all the other good things we hold true like morals, baptism, angels etc…” So I imagine the coiners of the word intended it broadly. So I don’t think I am going against even those who dislike atheists. 🙂

    However, many Buddhists want to think of themselves as Atheists — that is , a step above superstitious theists, while all along holding very similar concepts. Thus I thought the broadening would be helpful.

  3. I guess that makes me and John Calvin “atheists”; a charge that many non-Calvinist Christians would heartily endorse 🙂

    I don’t think the definition works, because it presupposes that God is an explanatory hypothesis. Since the God of Judaism/Christianity/Islam is not, and was never meant to be, an explanatory hypothesis, the definition fails to differentiate atheists from the majority of the world’s theists.

    It is true that some apologists appeal to explanatory parsimony to attempt to defend God’s existence, and it’s also true that some superstitious theists regularly appeal to God as an explanation for unexplained things. But the fact that theists sometimes do it does not mean that is what theism is about. Defining theism as “using God as an explanation”, simply because theists sometimes do it, would be exactly like defining McDonald’s as “a place where people go to the bathroom”. Yeah, lots of people who go to McDonalds use the bathroom, and there are lots of people who use the bathroom without even buying food, but you can’t boycott McDonalds by boycotting bathrooms.

  4. Ian

    Like kitten, your broader definition better captures what I mean when I say I’m an atheist.

    As for supernatural – the thought experiment I always give is this: are the laws of physics and chemistry broken at that point? Does F=ma not work, or e=mc2, or the quantum wave equation? In other words: is something happening that cannot be described in natural terms.

    When put in those bold terms, it is quite instructive how many rational religious folks have said (perhaps because, at that level, it is obvious that we could test for those things). “Well, no, put like that, I guess it isn’t supernatural.” – they want to claim supernatural for something akin to Dawkin’s perinormal.

  5. @ JS Allen
    I think the vast majority of believers do indeed use God in an explanatory manner. You may feel your personal flavor of Christianity does not (though I personally doubt that also) but again, I am describing the phenomena anthropologically — how people on the ground think — I am not worried about the rarified theological/philosophical types. Saying “[the god of Judaism/Christianity/Islam] was never meant to be an explanatory hypothesis” seems more of a prescriptive decree than a descriptive statement. It is akin to saying, “Jesus never intended the last supper to initiate a sacrament”.

    So it seems our debate would be an empirical question about how many theists do view their God as a powerful and necessary explanation of reality. Neither of us have much more than our intuitions, our biases and and limited experiences to use in offering a percentage, I am afraid.

    How many Christians do you would imagine would stand in front of their congregation, put their hands on a bible and say, “God is an unnecessary explanatory concept.” ? I guess you think many would OR you would say that even if very few, they’d be the ones that truly understand God.

    BTW, I won’t pursue the McDonalds analogy any further except to say that ironically, I wrote that post this morning while sitting in McDonalds and I did not use their bathroom. So perhaps God is speaking through you to me, though I hope my theory is not explanatory. 🙂

  6. @ Ian
    In the technical sense, I actually am suspicious that there is something wrong with the term “supernatural” at a deep level. Much of what happens now can not be explained in our present natural terms. It is this tension that pushes science. But I would say that “supernatural” explanations certain are never more satisfactory than “I am not sure”.

    I agree, rational religious folks makes tons of empirical claims and when called on it, go back into supernatural “explanations” or, as many Buddhists and other mystics do, retreat claiming that words are deficient or that the unknowable is unknowable. Theists and Buddhists often make testable claims but pull their religious rip-cord when they see the ground approaching.

  7. I don’t like this definition. Atheism is not a code word for “naturalism.” Even if it turns out that many atheists happen to be naturalist, that doesn’t mean that atheism is or implies naturalism.

  8. @ Andrew S
    “Atheism”, like all words, has many different uses. There is no one definition. It is fine that you don’t like this definition, but I think it can be very useful for some of us. If you return to the comments, and care to,please see my comment to CyberKitty above and see this short post on “The Myth of Definitions”.

  9. Not only can a single word (like atheism) have many uses, but there are other words that have uses as well. The thing is, we already *have* a good word for what you are describing: naturalism. So, even though you say that this definition can be very useful for some of us (which is precisely why there is a philosophical position of naturalism ALREADY — because people have ALREADY recognized the usefulness), why do you need to co-opt atheism for that as well?

    In this case, I am not making a prescriptive argument about essential definitions of languages. I am making a pragmatic and political point.

  10. How many Christians do you would imagine would stand in front of their congregation, put their hands on a bible and say, “God is an unnecessary explanatory concept.”?

    Saying “God is an unnecessary explanatory concept” still presupposes that God is primarily an explanatory hypothesis. If I were to tweak your wording to be less sneaky, I think that the vast majority of Christians would say, “God is not a necessary explanatory concept”, if prompted.

    What was Pascal’s Wager about if the explanatory power of a “God hypothesis” is so necessary to Christians? Was Blaise Pascal an atheist?

    This is a peculiar blind spot of Internet atheists who engage in apologetics discussions online. Internet atheists are keen to turn the debate into a debate about naturalism and science, since “Science: It Works, Bitches!”, and it’s always easy to attract crackpot YEC people to argue with. So they selectively engage people who engage in superstitious “woo” thinking, or the slightly more intellectual people who argue for “fine-tuning” or Thomas Aquinas’s “necessary being”. These are tiny little fringe issues in theism, but such debates dominate the message boards, and so the atheist eventually becomes persuaded that this is all there is to the discussion. It’s a weird self–confirming kind of myopia.

    Here’s the problem with your definition. You’re trying to catch people off guard and shortcut critical thinking by smuggling your own indefensible presuppositions into the definition. You say that the defining characteristic of theists is that they see God as a necessary explanation. According to you, if someone no longer regards God to be a necessary explanatory concept, she is, by definition, no longer theist.

    The vast majority of theists will admit that God is not a necessary explanation. Some who see God as an explanation will side with WLC and say that they find a God explanation slightly more likely. Others will side with Blaise Pascal and say that they can’t determine the odds, but they want to minimize their risk. The vast majority will say that they haven’t thought about it much and don’t consider it relevant. Still others will adopt my stance and say that the question is incoherent.

    And, of course, there are many other theoretical reasons that people could believe in God without seeing God as a necessary explanation. For example, evolutionary biologists have suggested that we evolved a “Hyperactive Agent Detection” system which programs us to hallucinate about such things. In that case, a person would believe in God because she was flat-out hallucinating, not because she saw God as a “necessary explanation”. Or perhaps, an alien with magical power visited and convinced the poor woman that he was a god. So she is persuaded by her own personal experience.

  11. If I were going to self-identify as an atheist your broader definition would suit me better. And certainly in that sense I am an atheist. However, the label carries such heavy negative baggage that I try to avoid it. Also, it is somewhat negative and does nothing to explain the shape of my worldview. Labels are problematic in the best of circumstances, I suppose.

  12. Ian

    “The vast majority of theists will admit that God is not a necessary explanation”

    In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t think I’ve met more than a handful of Christians who don’t see God as explanatory.

    On all kinds of level. If you ask just about any “why” question, you’ll get a “because”, an explanation in terms of God, or in terms of the dynamics of the supernatural.

    I don’t think Sabio was trying to make the point that Christians couldn’t possibly conceive of any hypothetical explanation for a phenomenon that didn’t involve God. But that in their preferred explanatory framework God was a necessary component. Whereas an “atheist” is someone who doesn’t reach for the supernatural for their explanations.

    I think pivoting to try to land the point of dispute onto the meaning of “necessary” is muddying the waters. In your last paragraph, for example, you flip the referent of necessary from God (qua explanations) to explanations (qua belief in God).

  13. @Ian – The fact that theists sometimes (or even often) use God as an explanation does not mean that this is a defining characteristic of a theist, anymore than “an animal with teeth” is the definition of a horse. By making this part of the definition, you’re saying that a person is not a theist if she doesn’t use God as an explanation. This is obviously wrong, since a great many theists do not use God as an explanation, yet believe that God exists.

    The whole supernatural/natural distinction is an arbitrary invention of the past 300 years, and the idea of defining an atheist as “someone who believes in naturalism” is not even coherent unless you adopt the recent convention of seeing these as opposing domains.

  14. Ian

    Okay, I get what you’re saying, but you’re still trying to invert what Sabio said. The aim is to get at a definition that captures the core of what it means to be an atheist in the context of religions that may not be theistic.

    I struggle to see (and have not experienced, despite having a theology degree), how a theist, even a deist, cannot use God as an explanation for anything. For something, at some point: whether it is revelation, morality, why there is something rather than nothing. A believer who denies that God has any involvement in any of those things is a very odd believer, surely.

    Seems to me like you’re trying to take a position that is at the end of some abstraction of theism, rather than theism as actually evidenced.

    “The whole supernatural/natural distinction is an arbitrary invention of the past 300 years”

    Nonsense. Nothing arbitrary about it at all. It is a recent discovery, granted.

  15. Ian

    “I struggle to see (and have not experienced, despite having a theology degree), how a theist, even a deist, cannot use God as an explanation for anything.”

    Can you name a theologian that took this view? I guess you’d have to take someone like Cupitt (stretching the definition of theologian, but still, he’d fit quite nicely into most believer’s category of atheist – a label he is rather sanguine with, from what I’ve read). Someone like Moltmann, even, uses the revelation of the Christ-event as an explanation of the ground of human hope. Tillich sees God as the ground of being – the ultimate explanation for everything. Who are we talking about as behind these “vast majority of Christians” who “when pushed” don’t see God as explanatory?

  16. crl

    This definition is perhaps too broad. As JS Allen mentioned, many (or, at any rate some. I doubt this applies too all that many Christians, but the argument remains valid) religious believers may not believe in a god of the gaps, and therefore may not see god as a necessary explanatory concept. The second definition is really a better definition of skepticism or naturalism rather than atheism, and, while those who question god without questioning ghosts/horoscopes etc. may logically contradict themselves, they are out there, and we should not divide ourselves into “false atheists” and “true atheists” lest we fall prey to the sectarianism which has infected other worldviews.

  17. “The whole supernatural/natural distinction is an arbitrary invention of the past 300 years”

    Nonsense. Nothing arbitrary about it at all. It is a recent discovery, granted.

    By calling it a “discovery”, you’re implying that something real has been discovered. But scientists don’t believe in the supernatural. How can you say that anyone has “discovered” a divide between the natural and supernatural, if there is no such thing as “supernatural”?

    It’s not a discovery; it’s a cheap rhetorical trick.

    The distinction is really a distinction between those who believe in an orderly universe, and those who believe that sometimes some unspecified magic ‘woo’ can violate the laws of the universe. So it’s a distinction between rational and superstitious.

    That’s what I don’t like about Sabio’s definition. It’s a sneaky attempt equate, by fiat, atheism with ‘rational’ and everyone else with ‘superstitious’. That will not do. There are plenty of atheists who believe in superstitious ‘woo’, while there are many millions of Christians who believe that the laws of nature are never violated. The issue of superstition is completely orthogonal to the issue of atheism.

  18. Wow, lots of traffic while I enjoyed surfing with the kids.
    I will write more later. Thanx to Ian and JS Allen for the discussion.
    Meanwhile, just a quick note to:

    @ Andrew S
    Ah, thanks, I see your point.
    I think the beauty of Singham’s definition is to help Agnostics from sitting on the fence. His definition is not synonymous with Naturalism (which you are right, is a great word). Do you see any benefit in his definition before I expanded it?

  19. @ JS Allen
    There may be Christians who don’t believe in the supernatural (violations of the laws of nature), but I have not met any. The ones I know, believe in miracles – multiplying fish, walking on water, stopping the sun in the sky, resurrecting the dead …. Some believe in only some of these, and a very small percent think the miracle stories are just stories. All the Christians I know are comfortable praying for divine violation of the laws of nature to some degree. I am really stumped by your claims.

  20. Sabio,

    I guess I can’t speak for self-proclaimed agnostics (and maybe what I will say will get into what you were addressing with your linked post about definitions), but it seems to me that the reason why agnostics “sit on the fence” as it were is because there is confusion or disagreement about whether atheism is solely believing that there are no gods, or whether it includes not believing that there are gods (and whether these two statements are or are not equivalent.) So, I think that when many agnostics dispel the atheist monicker, saying, “I neither believe nor disbelieve in gods,” they probably mean “disbelieve” to mean “believe there are no gods” — which they do not do — whereas an atheist like myself would take “disbelieve” to mean “do not believe [there are gods]”, which I think many agnostics would fit.

    I don’t see Singham’s definition as making any progress on this ground (and this is tedious ground, I guess), so I don’t see what the big deal is. I actually feel like using terms like “unnecessary explanatory concept” adds completely irrelevant distinctions into the mix just to sound elevated.

    Basically, it doesn’t matter whether one believes gods a necessary explanatory concept for one to believe in gods, or not believe in gods. (It’s easy for me to imagine someone saying, “I recognize that god isn’t necessary to explain x, but I still believe that god is the explanation.” Is this person an atheist?)

    Anyway, my problem with your “broadening” of the definition is different than my problem with Singham’s irrelevant phrasing. Your broadening seeks to make a “true atheist” — one who also is naturalist, rationalist, or whatever values you prefer. This isn’t how things work is what I’m saying. Just because you don’t like the possibility that some or many atheists could otherwise be supernatural, superstitious, irrational, or whatever else, that doesn’t mean they are not atheists.

  21. Regarding the natural/supernatural, many theists I know believe that what we might currently refer to as supernatural are simply higher-order natural phenomena. I guess that quote: “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” applies here.

    This isn’t to say that these people necessarily believe that our current scientific paradigm is appropriate to discover and assess all natural phenomenon either.

  22. Ian

    “It’s not a discovery; it’s a cheap rhetorical trick.”

    You don’t think it is a discovery that *all* processes observable to our 300year-ago ancestors are supervenient upon mathematically accessible physical processes without the need to invoke a cognition or any form of external agency?

    Wow. I don’t quite know what to say about that. My sense is it would have blown their minds.

    Now, you can play ‘supervenience of the gaps’ here, and talk about the things we’ve observed in the last 50 years that haven’t been so reduced yet.

    But I never understand people who want to claim that the discovery of what is and isn’t natural is somehow significant, or illusory. Especially people who are over 35, or women on the pill, or those taking medication for any condition.

    “The issue of superstition is completely orthogonal to the issue of atheism.”

    Repeating that over and over doesn’t make it so. I too am rather stumped that anyone can deny the overwhelming correlation. Maybe you should write a systematic theology that shows how you can have an orthodox Christian faith while at the same time maintaining that God literally explains nothing about the cosmos or the human condition.

  23. Who are we talking about as behind these “vast majority of Christians” who “when pushed” don’t see God as necessarily explanatory?

    There are two separate but related points here:

    1) Very few theists see God as a necessary explanation.
    2) Even if many (or most) theists optionally use God in explanations, that does not constitute a definition of theism, anymore than a horse is defined as “an animal with teeth”. Theists who do not use God in explanations are still theists, and horses without teeth are still horses.

    The vast majority of reasons that a person is likely to be a theist have nothing to do with explanatory power. Once a person has committed to theism, it is natural that she might optionally choose to use God in explanations. However, it is not required by definition that she do so, and there is certainly no requirement that such ‘god’ explanations involve magical ‘woo’ that violates the laws of nature. Singham is trying to smuggle in his prejudicial presuppositions that theism involves both: 1) God is necessarily a hypothesis, and 2) The God hypothesis is anti-naturalist and involves magical supernatural ‘woo’. Both are patently false.

    Please remember that the definition in question is Atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.”. By this definition, the only non-atheists would be people who see god as a necessary explanatory concept. This ignores the vast majority of theists who see god as being, at best, an optional explanatory concept.

    You can’t save the definition by taking out the word “unnecessary”, either. Because then the definition becomes utterly vacuous: Atheist: One for whom god is not even an optional explanatory concept.”. The only way that god could not even be an optional explanatory concept would be if the person did not believe in god. So the definition reduces to Atheist: One who believes that God does not exist.”

    That’s a more honest definition of “atheist”, but it’s not what Singham was going for. Singham’s use of the word “unnecessary” was a deliberate attempt to paint theism as being nothing but a failed scientific theory. Singham was trying to pull a fast one with the sort of dishonest “definitional judo” that Sabio typically excoriates here.

  24. Ian

    “However, it is not required by definition that she do so, and there is certainly no requirement that such ‘god’ explanations involve magical ‘woo’ that violates the laws of nature.”

    I’d suggest you might want to read the Nicene creed. Plenty of violation there. Or any statement of faith. Or any systematic theology. Or the content of just about any homily I’ve sat through.

    “This ignores the vast majority of theists who see god as being, at best, an optional explanatory concept.”

    Citation needed.

  25. “It’s not a discovery; it’s a cheap rhetorical trick.”

    You don’t think it is a discovery that *all* processes observable to our 300year-ago ancestors are supervenient upon mathematically accessible physical processes without the need to invoke a cognition or any form of external agency?

    When I said that the distinction between natural and supernatural is a new invention, you retorted that the idea of there being two distinct domains was a “discovery”. I called B.S. Now you’re retreating to my original claim that there is no such distinction, and you’re saying that’s the discovery.

    So I guess you’re agreeing with me. There wasn’t a distinction between the domains in the past, science proves that there is no such distinction now, and therefore anyone who prattles on about such a distinction between natural and supernatural is indulging in a recent invention.

    The stuff about supervenience is tangential, and might be an interesting topic at some point, but I sense you’re reacting emotionally and not really listening at this point. The failure of the definition is a simple matter of logic.

  26. Ian

    “This ignores the vast majority of theists who see god as being, at best, an optional explanatory concept.”

    While I think that most theists I know would not have a big problem if it was found that a *particular* explanation for which they used God, turned out not to be explained by God.

    Most of them would have a problem if that explanation was for particular cases (the resurrection, say – we find out that God did not raise Jesus from the dead), that would be a big issue.

    And if we found that God was never, in any case, necessary to explain anything at all. That God literally had no discernable effect on the cosmos. No virgin birth, no resurrection, no holy spirit indwelling them, no answers to prayers, no miracles, no blessings. To say that would have no effect on the faith of the vast majority of them is pure fantasy.

  27. I’d suggest you might want to read the Nicene creed. Plenty of violation there.

    Citation please? I recite the creed, and don’t remember anywhere that it says, “And then, by capriciously violating the laws of nature, since he was impotent to arrange the laws in advance, God did …”

    “This ignores the vast majority of theists who see god as being, at best, an optional explanatory concept.”

    Citation needed.

    As I explained earlier, the appeal of arguments like Pascal’s Wager depend on the fact that God is not a necessary explanation. That is, people first become theists, and then by virtue of already being theists, choose to apply the God explanation along with other explanations. Otherwise, Pascal’s Wager and all of the other reasons for becoming theist would make no sense at all.

  28. Ian

    “When I said that the distinction between natural and supernatural is a new invention, you retorted that the idea of there being two distinct domains was a “discovery”. I called B.S. Now you’re retreating to my original claim that there is no such distinction, and you’re saying that’s the discovery.”

    No, no. Look, before we had the tools to find this out, explanations were a big morass. Including mechanistic, reductionist approaches, and hypothesis of spirits, and gods — agency and mechanisms mixed.

    We *have* discovered that there is a clear line there. One you can drive a truck down. That the mechanistic reductionist explanations are observable. Explanations involving the agency of an invisible will never are. Never once have they been. Not once. And we’ve looked. Lots.

    That is stunning, from the perspective of someone half a millenium ago.

    That is a genuine discovery. The discovery of the difference between the natural and the supernatural. Nothing rhetorical about that.

    I get that you’re trying to say that “well, what we discover to be true we just call ‘natural’, so its meaningless, if we’d discovered something else, we’d have called *that* natural.” — that’s as true as it is meaningless. Because this whole discussion is about the *content* on each side of that line. And, so far, gods and spirits have always lined up on the supernatural side. We look for them, where believers tell us they lurk, and we just find the same mechanisms we find everywhere else.

  29. Ian

    “I’d suggest you might want to read the Nicene creed. Plenty of violation there.

    Citation please? I recite the creed, and don’t remember anywhere that it says”

    Okay, I think I need to check out of the discussion now. You’re being deliberately obtuse now. People aren’t born of virgins, nor do they rise from the dead.

    You’re playing a trollish game. Switching from an abstract theism of your own making, to fantastic statements about what the vast majority of believers believer.

    I’m done. Feel free to get the last word in. Clearly you’re running a strategy of attrition rather than sense.

  30. There may be Christians who don’t believe in the supernatural (violations of the laws of nature), but I have not met any. The ones I know, believe in miracles – multiplying fish, walking on water, stopping the sun in the sky, resurrecting the dead …. Some believe in only some of these,

    I’m very sorry if the only Christians you know are Christians who believe that God screwed up the laws of nature when he made them, and then had to intervene and violate his own laws when he realized he screwed up. Sounds like a shit god to me. I can’t imagine how anyone could believe that and remain a Christian.

    I’ll admit that nearly all of my friends and acquaintances are atheist, but the few Christians I hang out with believe that God is sovereign enough to have done things right from the beginning. As far as I know, this is standard reformed theology.

    I am really stumped by your claims.

    Likewise, I’m more that a little shocked at the pushback from you and Ian. It is dawning on me that neither of you can conceive of any reason for theism other than “God of the gaps”.

  31. Okay, I think I need to check out of the discussion now. You’re being deliberately obtuse now. People aren’t born of virgins, nor do they rise from the dead.

    Neither occurrence violates any laws of nature. One of my co-workers in the office next to me was a virgin before she gave birth to her twin IVF daughters, and my grandfather was pronounced dead and was in the morgue more than 24 hours before he came back to life. Virgin birth and rising from the dead are both scientifically possible and not all that uncommon today. There is nothing in the creeds that demands that “laws of nature” be violated — quite the opposite. The creeds never demanded that “laws of nature” be violated as evidence of God. Rather, the creeds only ever claimed that the laws of nature led to a particularly unlikely result in order to make an impact on believers.

    That’s why I talk about a “cheap rhetorical device”. Apologists like Singham want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to make a wacky distinction between natural and supernatural that no historical Christian ever believed in, and that every scientist knows is B.S. Then, based on this distinction that everyone knows is B.S., he wants to say that any naturalistic explanation for the virgin birth and resurrection would disprove God, and that the only way God can prove himself to be God is by climbing into the ever-shrinking gap and incriminating himself by meddling with and overriding laws that he stupidly programmed wrong from the start.

    Don’t you see the problem here? Unless you presuppose that God is a God of the gaps, Singham’s definition of “atheist” makes no sense at all. And if you really believe that the only reason for theism is “God of the gaps”, then you’re an atheist already. Maybe this is a more honest definition:

    Atheist: One who has convinced himself that he’s the only sort of chap for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.”

  32. Ian

    …and why am I still getting emails? I tried to unsubscribe from this thread.

    I find you’re arguing in bad faith, JSA.

  33. Sophistry

    I really wish you were the sort of person who had the capacity to identify and challenge the portions of my position that might rely on sophistry. That’s my primary motivation for blogging, and I have some vague suspicions about part of my line of reasoning presented here.

    Unfortunately, you’ve come nowhere near the part of the argument that I suspect might be weak. I apologize if I come across as impatient or arrogant, but the thing you’re choosing to focus on (presupposing god-of-the-gaps) is just hard for me to take seriously. It has to be one of the most tired, lousy, and discredited arguments against theism; and it’s a shame that you’re rat-holing on such a silly argument when there is potential to explore an argument against theism that might actually be challenging.

  34. Boz

    JS Allen, based on your first comment, are you saying that in your opinion, the God (Yahweh), has not made anything happen? has not taken any actions?

  35. @ Ian
    Wow, this thread has really blossomed! Ian, I hope you found a way to unsubscribe! 😉 I agree with many of your points, obviously.

    @ JS Allen
    I really value you as a contributor to my site and have learned much from you. I am excited to continue learning from you. It is obvious that we disagree here. I have stepped back and try to see if I am missing something.

    I also have admiringly seen you many times here and on other sites confess a desire to catch yourself in bad argumentative habits. We all need to learn from you and take a break to examine any encounter to see if we are being less than we’d want to be.

    We all have triggers that drive us to take extreme positions, jump around and avoid agreement. So let me see if I have done this. I think one of your main points is this:

    Theism is Bigger than the God-of-the-Gaps

    And I certainly agree that “God”, as used by almost all believers, is certainly much bigger than a mere God-of-the-Gaps. In fact, addressing this issue, I did a post on “Your Modular God” where I agree with you (I think) though perhaps you’d criticize my direction and conclusions. (you did not comment on that post yet).

    God is a companion, a guide, an emotional support and a source for moral inspiration to theists. And for many, this is their primary relationship to their notion of the divine. Some would typify their relationship as submission, absorption, surrender or discipleship. None of these are primarily driven by the standard notion of the God-of-the-Gaps (which I call the Spackle God).

    So, is this close to part of what you are trying to drive home here. Are you saying, “Look, God, as many of us experience is huge. Sure, just as a horse has teeth, God may have explanatory characteristics, but He is much more than that.” ?

  36. @ Andrew S
    Hmmm, I can see how this definition will not be helpful to many people. But it was fun exploring. I too find the whole thing rather tedious, but I did want to romp a bit in the pen again.
    You seem to be taking part of JS Allen’s position here — the necessity part. I agree that there is something to that.
    BTW, concerning “making a ‘True Atheist'”, I have absolutely no intention in that direction. My writings would make it clear that this is not my intellectual temperament at all. Perhaps my little catchy title on this post does trigger those nuances though.
    Thanx for the input!

  37. @Sabio – That’s pretty close. Here it is even more succinctly:

    The traditional definition is:

    Atheist: Anyone who doesn’t believe in god.

    Singham’s attempted redefinition is:

    Atheist: Anyone one who doesn’t believe in spackle god.

    The spackle god is the god of the evolution-deniers than Singham loves to debate; it’s not the god of traditional theism.

  38. @ JS Allen,

    Great, using the language of my Modular God post it seems that the contentions of the commentors on this thread span the following options:

    (a) “Traditional Theism” does not have a spackle-god module

    (b) Theism is essentially a spackle-god

    (c) Theism, may have varying degrees of a spackle-god module, but they are always critically linked to the spackle-god even when it is small

    (d) The spackle-God module may be a part of “Traditional Theism”, but it is not critical

    Does that sound like a useful way to move the conversation? Did I miss any? Did I do injustice to any?

  39. Yes, that is very helpful, and looks clean to me. In my view, claims (b) and (c) are far from being established, so it’s not responsible for Singham to just presuppose them to be true.

    As an atheist, I wouldn’t even have argued for claim (b). There are other plausible atheistic explanations for people being deluded about gods, that have nothing to do with spackle.

  40. @ JS Allen
    I am thinking you may hold position (d), but maybe you hold the stronger position of (a). Which is yours?

    It is probably clear that I hold position (c) which is perhaps a softer version of position (b) — the two you feel are “far from being established”. But hopefully such labels will focus our differences (or less so, the similarities).

  41. First, while I say that (c) is far from being established, it is also far from being disproven. It is the interesting question and deserves to be considered, which is why I don’t like to see Singham attempting to establish it “by fiat”. It’s not a matter that is settled by definition; it’s a matter of open and intense inquiry.

    As far as (d) is concerned, I think it’s understandable that many theists start using God as spackle once they believe that there is a God. It may be unadvisable and sloppy, but it’s not the end of the world. Heck, for an eliminativist like you, the majority of atheists believe in a delusional “spackle self”, and you don’t get bent out of shape about it.

    Regarding (a), I think it’s obvious that some traditional theists arrived at theism through spackle reasoning, while others didn’t. The larger point is that it wasn’t even a relevant distinction 300 years ago. We’re projecting our modern reductionist frame of reference onto the past, and theists of the past just didn’t think that way — the question would make no sense to most of them. They would respond, “Spackle over what? Doesn’t god sustain everything?” It just wasn’t an issue like it is today.

    Now, it’s possible that many traditional theists were engaging in spackle thinking, but they wouldn’t have been aware of it. It’s only in the modern age that we have theists who voluntarily and proudly worship a spackle god.

  42. @ JS Allen

    So we see there are many issues here. Talking about them all at once is confusing — well for my mind. The permutations of positions makes my head spin.

    I think C & D have the most hope of dialogue while A & B are the most exclusive.

    As far as (d) is concerned, I think it’s understandable that many theists start using God as spackle once they believe that there is a God.

    I think many nonbelievers would condoned that “Spackle-God” modules do not form later in believers, but are very early if not essentially early. This seems also a core point that sets up the tension here.

    Regarding (a), I think it’s obvious that some traditional theists arrived at theism through spackle reasoning, while others didn’t.

    I think this is what Ian and Boz are disagreeing and asking for evidence on. Ian asked for one theologian.
    You call something “obvious” while you claim any assumption by others are acts of fiat. Something seems lopsided here.

    he larger point is that it wasn’t even a relevant distinction 300 years ago. We’re projecting our modern reductionist frame of reference onto the past, and theists of the past just didn’t think that way

    I think it was clear that the Old Testament is a simple re-telling of history to tell Jews that they their history sucked because they didn’t listen to Jehovah or that they succeeded when they obeyed Jehovah — damn the actual history. This seems so clearly a “Spackle-God” that your coments that such thinking is modern leave me puzzled.

    So we are kind of back at the same point but now maybe with categories to discuss, or not.

  43. OK, it seems you may be expanding the idea of “spackle god” beyond “god of the gaps”. For purposes of this discussion, can we agree that “spackle god” is a god that is invoked to explain something that has no naturalistic explanation? That seems consistent with the way that Singham tries to redefine atheism.

    For example, when you say:

    I think it was clear that the Old Testament is a simple re-telling of history to tell Jews that they their history sucked because they didn’t listen to Jehovah or that they succeeded when they obeyed Jehovah — damn the actual history.

    I don’t see that as a “spackle god” at all. Why isn’t it more plausible to say that it is opportunistic lying about one’s history in order to manipulate one’s descendants? Or are you just saying that this is probably an example of (d)? If so, I agree.

    “Regarding (a), I think it’s obvious that some traditional theists arrived at theism through spackle reasoning, while others didn’t.”

    I think this is what Ian and Boz are disagreeing and asking for evidence on. Ian asked for one theologian.

    Arriving at theism via spackle reasoning would be like this: “I really don’t understand why ‘X’ happened. Oh, wait, I have it! It must a magic being in the sky that I never thought of before and is only just occurring to me now — magic sky-being explains things perfectly now! I now believe in the sky-being!”

    Ian’s request for me to name a theologian was deeply confused, IMO. We’re talking about why a person becomes a theist, and the majority of theologians simply say that people become believers because the holy spirit moves them. I doubt that’s what Ian wanted, and I would prefer to be more scientific about things. Even if I charitably assume that he wanted me to name one apologist (since apologists, and not theologians, are in the business of giving people reasons to believe), the prognosis isn’t good. I mentioned Pascal’s wager as one apologetic argument that does not appeal to spackle god, and in fact there are only a few apologetic arguments that do appeal to spackle god.

    So I think it’s more productive to talk about what scientific reasons a person might become a theist. In some cases, spackle will be a reason. But I think there are several other possible reasons, and spackle is probably not the major player. This is the project that Daniel Dennett is undertaking with his new book “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”.

  44. I just wanted to emphasize something that I feel not everyone is quite in agreement upon.

    Suppose that theists use their deity as an explanatory force for certain things. This is not the same thing as these theists using their deity as a necessary explanatory force.

    So, I’ll take as an example:

    I think it was clear that the Old Testament is a simple re-telling of history to tell Jews that they their history sucked because they didn’t listen to Jehovah or that they succeeded when they obeyed Jehovah — damn the actual history. This seems so clearly a “Spackle-God” that your coments that such thinking is modern leave me puzzled.

    For the OT to be a retelling of history to Jews that involves Jehovah as an explanatory concept does not imply that Jews (or theistic Jews) are such that believe that Jehovah is a necessary explanatory concept. Maybe it’s because Mormonism has a very different position wrt history and historicity, but most serious-minded Mormons I know recognize that there are a number of explanatory concepts — the Mormon one isn’t “necessary,” but they are Mormon because they believe and trust in the Mormon concepts despite their non-necessity.

    Once again, I would ask, if an atheist is someone for whom “God is not a necessary explanatory concept,” then what do we call someone who believes in God, and even uses God as an explanatory concept, but recognizes wholeheartedly that God is not a necessary explanatory concept? It is absurd to say this person would be an atheist. So, looking at this, I have to take a D perspective solely on the theoretical integrity of it all. Taking a (c) position or a (b), if I understand correctly, would allow this absurdity of having certain sets of people who believe in God be atheists The (d) position allows that, regardless of how or for what reason one believes in God, it is the believing in God that is central to theism.

  45. Like I said, the conversation gets complicated easily.

    Why do people become theists?
    I think the evidence shows that the vast majority of people become the religion they are because of what they are taught by their parents. But as to why people do or do not become what their parent taught them is probably pretty complicated and involves parental relationships, peer experiences, local environment, and much more. I don’t believe “being moved by the Holy Spirit” has any explanatory use. In fact, I can imagine nothing where the Holy Spirit or god could have any explanatory power. But you probably agree that this is true, but you still believe in a god or Holy Spirit.

    Concerning Israel
    Yes, we can explain the fate of Israel without a god. Apparently you could too. But most Christians I know feel they need Yahweh to explain the fate of Israel. So again this appears to show how Atheists don’t need explanatory power of a God and most Christians do.

    But so far you are going to tell us that you don’t care if all the OT stories are made up and that people become believers due to simple demographic reasons, right? Or am I mistaken?

    Concerning the Resurrection
    Most apologist I know go out of their way to say there is no other way to explain the supposed actions of the apostles with resorting to Jehovah resurrecting his male son from the dead and everyone seeing this miracle (breaking of rules of nature).
    This is what Ian was asking you to either say you don’t believe (and be consistent) or say you do and thus confess you need God to act as a necessary explanation while the atheists are explaining without a god.

    But you won’t tell us if you believe this. It sounds like you are holding a faith that none of us have run into before.

    I see these all as being simple, straight-forward examples of what using god to explain things.

    Where am I mistaken?

    Without using a Jehovah to act as some key positions (a powerful explanation), I can’t see how the historical Christian positions claimed by traditional Christians can happen.

  46. @ Andrew
    There are many sorts of Jews, of course. Many atheist Jews who consider themselves culturally Jewish and for which none of this is necessary, of course. Indeed many Christians are the same — cultural Christians. So in this sense, for these people, that is absolutely correct. But I don’t think JS Allen is discussing that issue. Are you, JS?

    Concerning Mormon concepts, I have not knowledge to discuss.

    I see your point about “necessary” though I know few Christian (aside from casual, cultural Christians) that don’t hold a necessity for God as I mentioned above to JS Allen.

    But in a rarefied philosophical way, I think I get your point. But on the ground, I think the definition can be useful.

  47. Sabio,

    Hence why I put theistic Jews in parenthesis. I am very well aware of cultural Christians and secular Jews, but I am NOT talking about these groups.

    I STILL want to emphasize. I don’t think what you are describing in several posts are theists (Christian or Jewish) using God as a necessary explanatory concept. At best, you are finding Christians and Jews who necessarily explain things with God.

    The difference may seem subtle, but it is immense.

    The former is someone who insists that God is the only way a concept can be explained.

    The latter is someone who explains something by involving God, but who may or may not believe that God is the only way that thing may be explained.

    Let’s take your example of the resurrection. When someone like William Lane Craig argues, his argument isn’t that God is a necessary explanation for the resurrection. His argument is that secular alternative explanations, while possible, are (if he’s right) more unlikely than an explanation that involves God. So, YES, he necessarily explains things with God. But (at least on the point of the resurrection), he doesn’t use God as a necessary explanation. There are many possible explanations, of which he just happens to believe that God is the best one.

    There is a TREMENDOUS world of difference here. And that tremendous world of difference threatens your position and hinders your ability to engage with theists (but maybe you’re not interested in that).

  48. @ Andrew S,
    Thanks for the explanation concerning WLC. Indeed, I was not understanding you. That is a subtle difference.
    Let me see …
    Objectively speaking, God is not a necessary explanation for the resurrection and indeed WLC may even feel the probability of God being the miraculous cause of Jesus’ supposed resurrection and thus not necessarily the cause, nonetheless he believes it.
    That is what you are saying, right?
    But it could be phrased this way, WLC does not feel God is necessarily the most probable cause of the resurrection. But for WLC to be a Christian, he must necessarily believe God was the cause.
    Are we playing with syntax here?
    Because The last one captures what I mean.
    Or am I still confused?

  49. Sabio,

    Objectively speaking, God is not a necessary explanation for the resurrection and indeed WLC may even feel the probability of God being the miraculous cause of Jesus’ supposed resurrection and thus not necessarily the cause, nonetheless he believes it.

    Right. I think far more theists (at least, maybe it’s just ones who have seriously considering their theism or who have seriously confronted other worldviews, whether theistic or not) believe their position not because it’s “necessary,” but because for whatever reason, they simply are compelled to believe it is most likely. Or even if they don’t believe it is *most likely*, that’s where faith comes in anyway. (That’s why it dismays me to hear people speaking in terms of “probability.” E.g., when atheists say, “OK, so I can’t say God doesn’t exist, but he probably doesn’t exist. Probability isn’t actuality. I could recognize that God is highly improbable, but still nevertheless absolutely believe that God exists.”)

    But it could be phrased this way, WLC does not feel God is necessarily the most probable cause of the resurrection. But for WLC to be a Christian, he must necessarily believe God was the cause.

    In general, I want to agree more than up to this point (because for a non-negligible, if not majority portion of Christians, this may be the case), but even here is a bit tricky. I mean, would we say that people like John Shelby Spong are not Christian? (Actually, he probably doesn’t count as a theist, so this is a good question.) If we restrict the definition thus, we can strategically make “Christian” into a derogatory stereotype focused on things like biblical literalism or fundamentalism.

    I for one still think there are other definitions for things like “Christian” and more broadly, “theist,” than believing “God did x.” I may be just reading too many liberal, postmodern theologians though.

  50. Yeah, the liberal/progressives/post-moderns are different creatures. But then they don’t think me or my kids are going to hell or should not be allowed to teach their children or be representatives in their government … So they are not my worry. They do not impede science or…. They can mix terms however they wish. It is not them to whom I wish to influence.
    Thanx for the subtle distinctions here. It was interesting.

  51. Thanks, Sabio. You are remarkably skilled at facilitating these complex discussion.

    I think the evidence shows that the vast majority of people become the religion they are because of what they are taught by their parents

    I agree. Note that I was talking more about why a person who had never been exposed to theism would become a theist — i.e. how could theism arise in the first place? But your example of people raised in modern culture works, too.

    We seem to be in agreement on this — most people do not become theists as a way of spackling. Instead, they are theist for other reasons, and then they use theism as spackle. Establishing that fact alone is enough to undermine Singham’s definition, since he sees the spackling as being necessary to the definition of theism. I believe that’s the same point Andrew is making.

    But most Christians I know feel they need Yahweh to explain the fate of Israel. So again this appears to show how Atheists don’t need explanatory power of a God and most Christians do.

    This is a great example. At most, this is type (d) spackling. In other words, it only makes sense to someone who is already a committed theist. Such spackling can never be a necessary underpinning of theism. Do you disagree?

    In fact, the Jews considered God to be working through natural causes in the majority of the situations where Israel was punished. The Jews saw nothing miraculous or supernatural about their defeat by the Babylonians or any other of the kingdoms mentioned in Kings. So it’s not even fair to say that they were engaging in a “god of the gaps”. At most, they were engaging in ex post facto rationalization to make sense of things that were fully explainable through naturalistic means.

    Most apologist I know go out of their way to say there is no other way to explain the supposed actions of the apostles without resorting to Jehovah resurrecting his male son from the dead and everyone seeing this miracle (breaking of rules of nature).

    Again, this is a great example. You blithely equated “miracle” with “breaking the rules of nature”, completely oblivious to the violence you’re doing to the definition. This isn’t how “miracle” was ever defined historically, it’s not how theologians define “miracle” today, and it doesn’t even make sense to conflate the two.

    There are at least 3 distinct concepts that mustn’t be conflated:

    1) Divine Attribution: Jews, Christians, and Muslims see God’s hand in everything, not just in the miraculous. Divine attribution is applied to the completely non-miraculous defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. Heck, divine attribution was applied to rolling dice!

    2)Miracle: A miracle is an event that is extraordinary and dramatic enough to signal divine intervention to mortals. As we saw in #1, the divine hand is very often seen to work through purely natural means, and this extends to miracles. There has never been a requirement that miracles violate the “laws of nature”, and it’s questionable whether the idea of a sovereign God “violating” his own laws even makes sense.

    3) Supernatural: The idea that there is a “natural” domain, where “laws of nature” rule, and gaps where gods rule, is a new invention. Historically, theists have assumed that God is completely sovereign over nature, and reformed theists agree. What does it even mean to say that God “violates” his own laws? It’s incoherent nonsense.

    You accidentally conflated #2 and #3, while Singham flatly conflates #1 and #3.

    I’m saying that the confused concept represented by #3 didn’t even exist prior to 300 years ago, so it’s not only silly to conflate #1 or #2 with #3 — it is guaranteed to be ahistorical.

  52. @JS Allen
    Which of these do you believe actually happened:
    (a) Jesus walked on water
    (b) Jesus healed a blind man
    (c-) Jesus cast spirits into pigs who then drown themselves
    (d) Jesus turned water into very good wine in less than a few hours
    (e) God raised Jesus from the dead

    Sorry, with all the flavors of Christians out there, often you have to stop and ask just to be sure you know which version one is talking to.

  53. @Sabio – I think that all or most of those probably happened. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a few of them are exaggerations.

    Shall we focus on (e), which is the one on your list that Christians are required by creed to believe literally? This was clearly a miracle. However, I see no reason that any physical laws of nature would need to be violated to accomplish the miracle as reported. People also considered it a “miracle” when my grandfather came back to life, and he was a reprobate who didn’t turn his life around afterward. I’m quite certain that no laws of nature were violated after he was pronounced dead and put in the morgue.

    BTW, I’m not saying I know what the mechanism was. I don’t know. I’m just rejecting the claim that the mechanism must have involved a violation of the laws of physics. That’s just crazy.

  54. Earnest

    Great thread, I seem to be a bit late to the party. Looking back on Ian’s comments (although I guess he has signed off), I think his objections may touch on how can a god be a god for a person if there is no relevence to explain anything? I recall a lecture where a statement was made, “relevence is a 2 way street”. Meaning if humans have gods, and those gods are so disconnected with explanations of reality as to be untouchable by logic to be proven or disproven, then how indeed are they gods at all?

    I have to disagree with Ian that a believer would be necessarily shaken if science or some other means pushed a given believer into seeing that a previously held notion that God was the mover was incorrect. There are a spectrum of believers, and those who are more devout may be more fragile in that regard. Those that are more utilitarian in their relatively weak faith, such as myself, can access God as an optional mechanism in when engaging in reverie, randomly surfing the imagination about peculiar events in history. It’s entertaining, but not earth-shaking stuff.

  55. @ Earnest:
    Indeed, your “God” is not accountable to any Holy Book or any Tradition. Your use “God” largely to mean “what amazes me & inspires me”. Oh, and having a “God” at all helps you feel like you belong. There are all kind of pluses to such an artificial god. 🙂

    @ JS Allen:
    Part of the “Laws of Nature” is that an object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to remain at rest — unless acted upon. If a guy is going 80 MPH on his motorcycle, his a log, flies in the air toward a tree but his trajectory veers a sharp detour and he lands softly on rocks, then something interfered.

    If a person died, heart and brain dead for three days, and everything started moving again (chemicals, electrochemical pumps …) then something interfered with the Laws of Nature.

    When you grandfather came back to life, he wasn’t dead in the first place (though his heart may have stopped for a while). I can accept that Jesus was not dead in the first place. Further, a,b,c,d all break laws in similar ways or they didn’t. If they didn’t, it was a hoax, not a miracle.

    I think some liberal Christians may dismiss all miracles and make the resurrection metaphoric so as to preserve their affiliations with religion, but I think you are trying to preserve your affiliation with scientific thinking in a similar manner. Or, I still just don’t get it.

  56. I love your broader definition! I have vague plans to use it somewhere — with attribution, of course.

    I’ve sometimes said, “God is an unnecessary hypothesis”, and I’ve heard almost the same or the same expression from others, too. But I like your formulation better. It’s probably clearer than mine to folks who are not familiar with what an hypothesis is, or to folks who take “god” in a limited sense, rather than as an example of a supernatural entity, and one to be applied in a broader sense.

    Discovering your blog tonight has been as pleasurable as walking into a candy store when I was a kid. Thank you for some interesting posts!

  57. @ Paul
    Thank you. Glad you found some things enjoyable or useful.

  58. @Sabio – For the record, what I am describing is a mainstream, historical, and very conservative theological position.

    You’re describing a God who can only reveal himself by interfering with the Laws of Nature. This conception of miracles didn’t even appear until 1748, and is highly controversial, to say the least.

    If a person died, heart and brain dead for three days, and everything started moving again (chemicals, electrochemical pumps …) then something interfered with the Laws of Nature.

    Do you really believe this? I certainly don’t. If such a thing happened today, in a modern hospital under well-monitored conditions, I would start looking for the natural mechanisms behind the occurrence. I think that most doctors and scientists would do the same. That’s what doctors did when they first started encountering examples like my grandfather’s, and even though they haven’t found the mechanism yet, we don’t doubt that there is one.

    When you grandfather came back to life, he wasn’t dead in the first place (though his heart may have stopped for a while). I can accept that Jesus was not dead in the first place.

    He was dead, according to the current clinical definition of the word. He was dead, according to any definition that would have been relevant to 1st century Jews. Redefining the word is question-begging.

    Further, a,b,c,d all break laws in similar ways or they didn’t. If they didn’t, it was a hoax, not a miracle.

    Seriously? You can’t imagine any way these things could have happened besides “interfering with Laws of Nature” and “hoax”? Both (b) and (c) seem quite possible to explain through sheer coincidence or a number of other means — are you aware of some scientific laws which say that pigs never stampede or blind people never regain sight?

  59. @ JS Allen

    Yeah, this is unique for me. Never heard it. And I still don’t get it.

    If the NT folks could have found a natural explanation for Jesus coming back from the dead, I don’t think they would made a big deal about the resurrection.

    But obviously I must not be not up on “mainstream, historical, conservative theology”, according to you. But I’d wager that if I interviewed everyone in your Baptist church (minus the seminary honed pastors), 95% of them would see miracles as I describe them. Maybe more. But heck, I could be wrong — I am good at being wrong.

    And seriously, your explanation makes no sense to me. I must be irremediably modern, I guess.

  60. If the NT folks could have found a natural explanation for Jesus coming back from the dead, I don’t think they would made a big deal about the resurrection.

    Wrong. The NT folks didn’t make a distinction between “Laws of Nature” and “Laws of God”. In every existing writing that we have from them, they see nature as an instrument of God’s will.

    They made a big deal about the resurrection because, 1) resurrections were quite rare in those days, and 2) this particular resurrection was prophesied in multiple places as a sign.

    I’d wager that if I interviewed everyone in your Baptist church (minus the seminary honed pastors), 95% of them would see miracles as I describe them.

    I doubt it. If you ask them, “Can God accomplish miracles only by violating the Laws of Nature?”, I suspect that less than 5% would agree with you.

    I must be irremediably modern, I guess.

    I guess that’s one way of putting it. If someone doesn’t believe in miracles, though, it’s hard to see why he would stubbornly cling to a specific definition of miracles — especially one that doesn’t match historical or common usage.

  61. @ JS,
    Ah, come on. I don’t think I am being resistent, I just don’t get it. So calling me “stubborn” may not be accurate.
    But here is one version I could understand.

    God planned out each molecules course from the day of creation and has them all working using his natural laws. He planned out Jesus turning wine to water too at that time. So it did it in a natural way.

    Yeah, but that sounds like the ID God and completely unnecessary to the conversation — no need for prayer or worry about your future — it is all determined. Anything subtler than that is too puzzling to me.

  62. Sabio,

    “Natural” does not equal “set it and forget it.”

    In other words, it isn’t the case that the only way there could be a god who follows the laws of nature would be that such a god “predetermined” which “miracles” would happen (and built them into the system).

    While I don’t know if I would say “stubborn,” I get the impression that you’re quite uncreative about this whole business.

    I mean, let’s take the idea of alchemy, and particularly of transmutation. From one perspective, it seems quite unnatural, if not impossible. And certainly with the philosophical bent that the historical alchemists took, it seems like they were going after something supernatural.

    But does that mean that if something that might seem to be transmutation occurred, that it must necessarily be a violation of nature? No! The basic properties of elements (numbers of protons, electrons, etc.,) do NOT preclude the natural transmutation of one element into another.

    The problem with alchemical transmutation is NOT a problem of possibility. It’s rather in the fact that we haven’t developed the technology to make nuclear fusion cost effective.

    Considering the amazing things that we can theoretically understand in today’s science that would’ve been denounced as impossible or out of nature years ago, and the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know about nature, I would imagine that an open-minded person should be able to conceive of natural laws that we currently have no inkling about, and for which discussion would seem to be akin to discussing magic.

  63. Andrew is right that “set and forget” determinism isn’t the only option, but the resurrection is a great example of an event that was planned far in advance. The prophesies in the book of Isaiah were written around 600 BC, which means that there were at least 600 years within which natural causes could have aligned or fallen into place. Furthermore, most theologians say that the resurrection was God’s plan since before the fall. That is, it wasn’t a “plan b” or “divine mulligan”. So even if you’re not a determinist, it’s clear that this particular miracle was determined far in advance.

    For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the story of Sodom’s destruction is based on a kernel of truth. Imagine that you’re a guy named Lot, living in Sodom. Unbeknownst to you, there is a meteor headed straight for earth. The meteor has been on this course for thousands of years, since long before the city of Sodom existed. Meanwhile, you’ve been subconsciously concerned about the behavior of your fellow citizens, and that night you have a dream of the city burning, much as the garbage dumps outside the city burn. Your dream tells you to flee the city. You’re gripped with fear, because you don’t normally have dreams like this. The next day, you wander out to the countryside with your family, just before the meteor strikes the city.

    This sequence of events is entirely plausible on naturalistic grounds, yet most people would interpret it as a sign of God’s intervention. If God wanted to convince Lot of his power, I don’t see any reason why God wouldn’t use this mechanism.

  64. JS Allen,

    The only way that equates to determinism is if you believe than God has no free will. There’s a difference between God making a plan well in advance and God having a predetermined outcome. There are, in other words, more options than divine mulligan and determinism.

    Suppose it is in my power (but more importantly, will) to hit my brother if he annoys me. If I hit my brother when he annoys me (or even know enough of my brother’s nature to know he will annoy me,) that does not mean my planned action is predetermined. God can easily operate this way, with significant differences only to his extent of knowledge.

  65. @Andrew – I agree, it can work with determinism, molinism, or libertarian free will. I was simply responding to Sabio’s comment about “planned in advance” by noting that the resurrection was an event that was, according to Christians, planned well in advance. So the resurrection at least is compatible with what Sabio was saying.

  66. @ Andrew : “uncreative” — hmmm, never been accused of that before. I may be dense or stupid — maybe that is what you mean.

    @ JS Allen: So, do you envision your “God” actively acting? Does your god change his mind and thus his actions?
    It seems you are describing a Deistic deity. But I think you and Andrew are right: I am dense — not familiar with these subtle theological positions. Well, maybe they aren’t subtle, I am just a bit slow on this free-will/determinism stuff.

  67. Sabio,

    I definitely mean uncreative. I definitely like a lot of your posts and think they are very well-thought out, very structued and methodical.

    In fact, I would venture to say that creativity, if it has any relationship to intelligence, has an adverse one. At least, people who are often “institutionally” intelligent seem to be particularly uncreative. Outsiders aren’t set in their ways of thought, so can often offer quite different contributions to subjects.

  68. So, do you envision your “God” actively acting? Does your god change his mind and thus his actions?

    I think the jury is out on that question, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the issue of miracles and naturalism. FWIW, I see a few different possible answers to your question:

    1) God exists outside of time, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about him “changing” his mind. A “change” is something that can only happen if you experience time sequentially, while God experiences all time as one.
    2) God is the only being who truly has free will and can change his mind, we humans only have the appearance of free will
    3) God may appear to change his mind, but that’s all part of his pre-ordained plan.
    4) God changes his mind regularly, based on what humans freely choose to do

    I’m sure I missed some options. Options 1-3 appeal the most to me. Option 4 makes me nervous; I would have to re-think Christianity if that were true. Option 4 might be what Andrew believes.

    Regardless of which option is true, the point about miracles still stands. We can even see this in the case where atheism is true.

    Suppose that atheism is true, and imagine that you have acquired a massively superhuman intelligence and the ability to live 1,000 years. You are a purely natural being and must interact with the world through purely natural means, despite your immense superiority. You want to create a cult on earth that worships you as a God after your death. The only constraint is that you must do so in a way that can never be traced causally back to you — that is, your worshippers must be convinced that nature itself attested to your glory, and they must never be able to trace back any of your miracles to any direct manipulation by you. If they detect signs that you directly intervened in nature, you would just be a “god of the gaps” — a particularly clever magician. But if you can convince them that nature itself was pre-ordained to cause the miracles they will witness after your death, your claim to have created nature will carry more weight.

    Would you be able to do it? It would be a breeze! Your superior intelligence and long lifespan would allow you to engineer miracles that attested to your greatness, and allowed you to cover your tracks. You would be able to understand and predict things that would be out of reach of the average human, so dramatic prophesies would be a breeze. You could engineer avalanches that spelled out “Sabio is God”, with the inputs separated by hundreds of years, with the causal chain hidden behind a wall of chaos three layers deep. The possibilities are endless.

    Of course, I don’t think that this describes God, but it’s a reductio. If such “miracles” are perfectly plausible for a sufficiently powerful natural being, how much more so for the actual creator? And this shows why I get so annoyed by Hume’s definition. Hume is fixated on the mechanism of the miracle, and ignoring the meaning. That gets things exactly backwards!

    If the stars spontaneously spelled out “Sabio is God”, and did so in a way that is indistinguishable from pure coincidence or natural causes, then that is a miracle!

  69. Hmmm, that seems to be the key to my “stubbornness” and “lack of creativity”: I assumed you had a Christian God who was active.
    There are so many varieties of Christianity it makes my head swim.
    Your miracle scheme did not make sense to me because I did not know how you construed your god. I still contend that does not match any of the Christians I know. But that is fine. I kind of get it — and still disagree, of course. It is a little bizzarre to me. Well (returning to the post), because such thinking seems totally unhelpful — without any explanatory power and aiding no way in decisions or actions.

  70. Your miracle scheme did not make sense to me because I did not know how you construed your god. I still contend that does not match any of the Christians I know

    I just offered up 4 different conceptions of God and explained how my historical and current mainstream definition of miracles is compatible with all 4 of them. As a bonus, I explained how it is compatible with atheism.

    Is there some other conception of God that I am missing? Also, can you defend your claim that all of the “Christians you know” believe in your Humean definition of miracles from 1748, where God is only able to intervene by violating the Laws of Nature?

  71. Sorry, JS, I don’t have the research funds to pull that data together.

  72. 🙂

    FWIW, I respect your admission that you cannot conceive of any non-Humean concept of miracles. You remind me of a philosopher with whom I was discussing libertarian free will. He had heard all of the arguments, and could find no compelling arguments in favor of libertarian free will, but he confided to me, “It’s impossible for me to conceive that we don’t have free will!”. It was that simple — arguments be damned, determinism was inconceivable! I consider Hume’s definition to be incoherent, but I consider you to be a very rational person, so I’m persuaded to keep this an open issue.

  73. Earnest

    There are as many definitions of God within Christianity as there are Christians. This makes Christianity much more of an ordeal to study than for example Hinduism. In Hinduism the “many faces of God” are clearly within the belief system of the typical believer, making things in aggregate much more uniform and easy to define.

  74. FWIW, Vic Reppert’s proposed definition of “naturalism” today, shares a lot in common with your definition. I think Vic is making the same error of presupposing Hume’s 1748 definition, but I want to wait and see what other people say to him. It might just be that I have a huge blind spot.

  75. @ JR
    Thanx. Boy, I am glad his post was short. He is a terrible writer in that post — or should I say, I had to re-read sentences over and over to see how to make sense of it. Maybe I am dumb.
    I will take your word for it that his position may overlap mine a bit concerning that definition. But He says he doesn’t care if it turns out that you are right. That ‘not caring’ is interesting, for it implies that his understanding of natural vs. supernatural or miracles vs. non-miracles is unimportant since he intends to just believe anyway. That means something else feeds his belief.

  76. @ JS Allen,
    If you are still following this thread:
    Francis Collins at 4:30 on this video, talks about “God suspending the laws of nature”. Just a little evidence to support my opinion that many Christians believe this, even the smart ones.

  77. PS to JS Allen:
    Rollin Williams fumbles with God messing with physics but not really using poetic slop at around 10:00 on the same video. Sounds like you’d want to agree with him and not Collins. 🙂

  78. JSA

    Thanks, Sabio, that’s a great find. Previously, I had seen Collins talk about how God could arrange for “apparently miraculous” events, but he never talked about actually “suspending the laws of nature”. I’m really intrigued that he can believe in “suspending the laws of nature” while also believing in evolution. I suspect that his view is more common among Christians who believe in libertarian free will, and it’s a bit ironic that the questioner smirkingly asks him how miraculous intervention is supposed to work (quantum? woo?), since the same could be asked about belief in libertarian free will.

    Williams’s answer does make more sense to me. He’s the head of the Anglican church, which used to profess reformed creeds like I do, but not sure if they still do.

    Since our conversation here, I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this on my end as well. It seems that reformed Christians are inconsistent in the language they use, with some using the “deviation from the normal course of things”, and others using “suspension of the laws of nature”. So now I’m trying to figure out how the colloquial view on miracles matches the “official” theology. I’m especially interested to find any Calvinist literature that would argue that miracles must involve a “suspension” of the laws of nature.

  79. Wow, glad to hear you are still interested. Yeah, I wager that 99% of Christians think of miracle as suspending the laws of nature. Good luck finding that 1%.

  80. JSA

    LOL, I doubt that more than 50% of Christians even have a coherent enough concept of “the laws of nature” for the question to even be meaningful. This is a parochial squabble that only affects people who are familiar enough with science, and with Hume’s definition of “miracle”, to even ask the question.

  81. ROFL: 50%? You are a kind man. I’d say 5% tops. Thank Amida, entrance to Paradise does not depend on sorting this stuff out. And thus, it is not a far jump to realizing that eternal salvation depending on parochial sorting out resurrection squabbles would also be surprising. 😉

  82. JSA

    Heh, I can’t argue with that. I wouldn’t be surprised if entrance to paradise was actually hampered by trying to sort this stuff out.

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