A chapter in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995) is titled “The Dragon in My Garage.” In the spirit of Sagan’s story, here is an imagined exchange between you and me about my unicorn.
Me: I have a unicorn in my garage!
You: Wow—let’s see!
Me: You don’t want to just take my word for it?
You: Of course not—I want to see.
(I open the garage door.)
Me: Okay, here you go.
You: Uh … this garage is empty.
Me: No … uh, he’s invisible.
You: Okay … can you make him make a sound?
Me: No—he’s silent, too.
You: Can we see food vanish as he eats it?
Me: Of course not—he’s magic. He doesn’t need food.
(You wander through the garage with your hands out in front.)
Me: What are you doing?
You: Trying to feel for it.
Me: Uh … no—he’s really small and he scampers away.
You: Can you hear him running? Like the sound of hooves on concrete?
Me: No—I told you he’s silent.
You: Well, how about spreading flour on the floor so we can see the footprints.
Me: Nope. He can float. And I’m sure he would, because he doesn’t like to be detected.
You: Can we can catch him with a net and weigh him? Can we put a sheet over him so I can see him moving underneath? Could we spray paint and see it on his body?
Me: No—he’s … he’s noncorporeal. Yeah, that’s it. Noncorporeal.
Of course, by now you’ve lost interest in this “unicorn.” Still, you haven’t been able to falsify my claim. I win!
But no one would accept this conclusion. By slithering away from every possible test, this supernatural claim has no evidence in support of it. Any unicorn that has this little impact in the world is pretty much the same as no unicorn at all. We can’t prove it’s nonexistent, but it’s functionally nonexistent.
“You haven’t been able to falsify my claim” is true, but this is backwards reasoning. The proper conclusion is: There is no evidence to support this claim, so there’s no reason to accept this claim.
Isn’t this how Christians evaluate the miracle claims of other religions? Why not handle those of Christianity the same way?
Jesus is Santa Claus for adults
(seen on a bumper sticker)
Photo credit: Wikimedia
And, indeed, this is the approach I would use with your run-of-the-mill superhero gods like Zeus (lightning) or Thor (thunder) or Demeter (crop growth) or Apollo (sun) or Shiva (destroyer)or Tenenet (beer). They’re more or less like people, except exaggerated in some respect. Do I think any of them exist? No. In that, I’m an atheist. Am I 100% sure? I have to say I’m not. They could conceivably exists somewhere, because there’s nothing about them that’s logically impossible. It’s just that there isn’t any evidence for them, just like there’s no evidence for the unicorn in Bob’s garage. That makes me an agnostic (can’t be sure) atheist for these guys.
But when we get to the Supreme Braggart, the one who claims not just to be real smart but to know everything, not merely real strong but all-powerful, not merely fast or very observant but ubiquitous, then I claim to be a gnostic atheist. No such critter with ultimate powers can possibly exist, because we can always find a way to pit one of those powers against another, and one of them must lose. Can God change his mind? Yes? Then he wasn’t omniscient to begin with. No? Then he isn’t omnipotent now. Can he get lost? Can he make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it? (Notice I’m not even getting near the elephant in the room, the claim of being omnibenevolent or “all-loving”.)
No creature for whom an ultimate ability is claimed can possibly exist. I say that I know this for a fact, and furthermore that I’ve just proved it. For such an outlandish claim as an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god, I can state flat out that there ain’t any such critter, never was, never will be, and never can be.
Hmmm…omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent. How about omniverous? We seem to have overlooked that one.
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Dave’s comment brought back a memory from my childhood and catechism class. The Father explained to us that God was all forgiving. My first thought and comment was, “Then why is there a hell?” it was explained to my 9 year mind that it takes faith to be one of God’s children and we shouldn’t question God’s ways or will. I persisted in that line of thinking and was asked to stay away because I was too disruptive and causing grief among the other children. I capitalized God for the believers out there, and for no other reason than that.
Well, I would hope you’d also have some respect for the conventions of the English language when it comes to proper names.
I personally am fond of the convention I picked up from Lloyd Whitling, who always referred to “the god named God”. Heh heh heh.