Monday, May 17, 2010

Do Billions Who Never Heard of God
Prove There Is None?
Shane Hayes

On 5/14/10 P. Coyle commented on my posting entitled How the Improbable God Probably Works, which appears below. I quote here part of what he asserted, rather eloquently, and then reply to it.

His Challenge


“You may care, and you may reach out to unbelievers, but you are not God. Reaching out always seems to require human agency…. [Mr. Coyle gives a list the vast multitudes who were not reached by Saint Paul’s missionary journeys, including over 100 million in China and on the Indian subcontinent. He also cites the “600 human generations… before the ancient Hebrews decided there was only one god, and that they were his chosen people.” He continues:]

“The number of people to whom the Christian God failed to reach out runs into the tens of billions. Why? I have my theory -- there was no God to do the reaching out. What's your theory? Why did the Christian God, who supposedly cares so profoundly that people believe that he exists, never bother to make known to so many the possibility of his existence?”

My response

P. C.,

Though I am a Christian I am not a Christian apologist. Many can defend Christianity better than I, so I generally speak here as a Pure Theist (to be defined in essays soon to be posted). My reflections on the Christian God may be unorthodox, but I’ll make a few as I argue the simpler case for a caring personal God

You're right, God usually works through human agents.  But he sometimes stirs the heart directly. Though even Christians admit that the Argument from Universal Belief is not conclusive, its premise is relevant here: “It is generally true that every people or tribe of men has had some kind of belief in a supreme being.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) Even you, P. C., might concede that the impulse to worship something greater than oneself has been widespread since the dawn of history and probably before. If the God of my hypothesis has implanted such a need and urge in humankind, he would allow for its expression in forms appropriate to the knowledge, opportunity, and mental capacity of each of his creatures.

A Pagan Aboriginal

If a tenth-century Australian aboriginal never heard of Christ or Yahweh, her kneeling down, extending her arms skyward in grateful wonder, and worshipping the sun would, for her, be as pleasing to my pure-theistic God (and I believe to the Judeo-Christian God) as attendance at a solemn high Mass.

If she stayed awake for long weary hours cradling her sick child, administering a potion of boiled roots believed to be medicinal, and intoning primitive incantations to the sun on his behalf, divine wisdom would see her as having fulfilled Christ’s two great commandments – to love God and love people – as admirably as Jairus, who implored Jesus directly on his daughter’s behalf.

The caring God of my hypothesis is not indifferent to any human creature of any era. Nor does he demand of the most afflicted and isolated, any more than their poor capacities and constricted circumstances allow them to do, be, or believe.

Blameless Ignorance

In judging moral culpability Church teaching contains the concept of “vincible and invincible ignorance” (ignorance that’s our own fault and ignorance that we can’t help). My tenth-century aboriginal was invincibly ignorant of everything proclaimed in the New Testament and therefore blameless for not believing in Jesus and his Gospel. She felt innate promptings to acknowledge a being of superhuman power, somehow related to her life, and responded by worshipping the sun. Her mate may have resisted those same promptings, and been unwilling to bestir himself, or sacrifice any comfort, to succor the suffering child.

A kind and omniscient God could apply the two great commandments to them, in their era and cultural milieu, as wisely and justly as he could apply them to me when, at age twenty, after fourteen years of Christian education, I renounced all I had once believed and became an atheist.

The All-Embracing Arms

God thus conceived could have existed through all the ages of the Earth, in the vast expanse of global cultures you point to, and had loving interactions with each of those nameless billions who groped toward him in their darkness. Though their literal concept of God was wrong, the earnestness of their effort to worship and connect was right.

Homage to a golden calf, by one who knew no better, might have been seen by a compassionate God as a metaphor for worshipping Him. And refusal to act on the worship impulse, by one who valued nothing beyond himself, might have been, in that time and culture, a metaphor for atheism. Was the One who inspired the Book of Genesis, whose Son called himself “the Lamb of God,” incapable of seeing truth in a metaphor?

This same large-hearted, all-seeing God could have planned and implemented an Incarnation, a Crucifixion, and a Resurrection, without excluding any who lived before or after them, from the ultimate beatitude of his love, unless they chose to exclude themselves. And those who exclude themselves, as I did, will feel persistent invitations – some silent, some quite audible – to return. He doesn’t give up on us lightly. Every time we glance at him he beckons.



  1. Shane:

    The title of your post, "Do Billions Who Never Heard of God Prove There Is None?" represents a misunderstanding of my argument. I was not trying to suggest that the argument proves that there is no God. It is notoriously difficult to prove a negative, and such was not my intent. What I was trying to suggest is that it undermines the case that you have been trying to make that believing that God exists is as reasonable as believing that God does not exist.

    The conclusion pointed to by the argument you have presented here is that the god in whom you believe did not, in fact, actually care all that much whether people believed that he, the Christian God, existed. A world in which absolutely no one believed he existed appears to have been sufficiently satisfactory to him. Am I mistaken, or are you also arguing that he did care, however, that people believed in some kind of "supreme being," even if that supreme being was the sun, or Zeus, or Wotan? Perhaps Yahweh is not quite so jealous a god as the First Commandment implies. But I must ask this: If it pleased your god that some ancient Roman worshipped Zeus, would it have displeased that same god if some other ancient Roman had concluded that there was no Zeus?

    You wrote, In judging moral culpability Church teaching contains the concept of “vincible and invincible ignorance” (ignorance that’s our own fault and ignorance that we can’t help). Could you clarify? Are you saying that atheists are "morally culpable," and does that mean that it is inherently immoral to be an atheist? Or would it be the case that only the atheist who has the Christian God in mind would be morally culpable, but the ancient Roman atheist who -- like the good Christian of a later time or a different part of the Roman world -- did not believe in the existence of Zeus and the gods of Mount Olympus but had never heard of Yahweh or Jesus of Nazareth would not be regarded by the Church as morally culpable?

    One final point here: It seems to me that the Argument from Universal Belief is simply false. The existence of one atheist is sufficient to refute it. While belief in gods has certainly been widespread, it has hardly been universal. If we specifically consider belief in, not just "gods," but a "supreme being," a creator god, we find that such a notion is rejected, for example, by Buddhism, which currently has several hundred million adherents. Do you believe that your god has been displeased by Buddhists for the last 25 centuries because they did not believe in a supreme being?

  2. Shane,
    I highly recommend you read Karen Armstrong’s History of God. It will give you insight into how people throughout the ages attempted to find solace in gods. In Egypt, they believed that a god pulled a chariot of fire across the sky during the day and at night spent time in the underworld. For thousands of years, the Egyptians as well as other countries with a different name prayed to the goddess Isis. As time went on, it was determined that the sun was a natural occurrence and not a god. Religions became more sophisticated. But this was not because of some god. It was man’s attempt to describe their god or gods. That is another thing. We went from multiple gods to just one. Shane, if there is a god and he wishes to be worshipped, don’t you think that the creator of the entire universe could get it right so that everyone would be worshipping him in the same way and everyone would know him as the same god now and throughout history?

  3. Shane, you said: “This same large-hearted, all-seeing God”.

    In Leviticus 25:44 it states "you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around about you." In 1 Timothy 6:1-4 it states: "Let all who are under the yoke of slavey regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed."
    In Exodus 21 The only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth. And in Ephesians 6:5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ….”
    In Exodus 21:7-11 The Bible makes it clear that every man is free to sell his daughter into sexual slavery. Deuteronomy 13:6, 8-15 states that if your brother, son, daughter, wife or friend tries to talk you into serving a different God, you must kill them.
    Read the verses if you do not believe me. This is what is in your Bible. And even Jesus stated in Matthew 5:18-19 that not one dot of the law will pass until all is accomplished. So, you see, Jesus did not change the laws I quoted above.
    In Exodus 21:15 it states that if your children are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them. (I am not making this up) In Deuteronomy 13:6, 8-15 it states that if your brother, son, daughter, wife or friend tries to talk you into worshiping another god, you must killed them. Sounds like the religion of the radical Muslins. This is the word of a loving god?

  4. If a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21) Sounds like what Muslins are doing today. If we are civilized, we will reject this as the vilest lunacy imaginable. And remember again that Jesus said that not one iota of the law will change until the end times.

  5. Shane,
    I know you believe, and I respect that, however, I just have to take exception when you refer to the Christian God as loving. That makes me think you are only gleaning the parts that are positive. Another part of Christianity that does not make sense is that if you refuse to believe and or accept Jesus as your savior, then you will burn in Hell for eternity. I'm sorry, but this is not a loving god. Could you imagine following God's law that you must stone your child to death if he talks back to you. No loving parent in his or her right mind would ever consider doing this, but God is saying you must and Jesus is stating that none of the law changes until the end times. To me, this is not a loving god. And slavery and selling your daughter into sexual slavery is A-OK. This sounds more like something contrived by religious leaders when the Bible was written.

  6. Shane said "Homage to a golden calf, by one who knew no better, might have been seen by a compassionate God as a metaphor for worshipping Him."

    I always wondered why anyone would make an image of a calf out of gold and then worship it. It simply made no sense. However, I finally found out through reading that the image was simply a representation of the god Baal. Kind of like Christians praying before an image of Jesus.

  7. Shane,
    I know you have read one of Sam Harris' books, I think it was The End of Faith. I highly recommend getting his book Letter to a Christian Nation. It is a very short and to the point. He also takes exception to God being loving. He mentions Katrina with children drowned in their beds, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq, the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda & 500 million died of smallpox in the 20th cent. He goes on to say that people of all faiths regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient & omnipotent? This is the age-old problem of theodicy & we should consider it solved. If God exist, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Believers will state that God cannot be judge by human standards of morality. But we have seen that human standards of morality are precisely what are used to establish God's goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern Himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which He is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. There is another possibility, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction, like Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom most human beings now ignore. Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? fOf course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus.