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For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

—Isaiah 55:8-9

One of the apologist replies frequently raised against atheist arguments such as the argument from evil, the argument from divine hiddenness, or the argument from incompetence, is that God is so much higher and more intelligent than human beings that it would be the height of arrogance for us to presume to judge him. Bolstered by verses such as the above, this argument holds that what we imagine to be evidence of God’s nonexistence, incompetence or malevolence is actually the wise plan of a powerful creator, and that the decisions religion says God makes only seem poor to us because we lack the intellect to appreciate the reasons behind them.

However, this argument has a major hole in it. Namely, if it is true that God’s thoughts are so much higher than ours that we cannot hope to understand them, then how can anyone know what he is really like or what he does or does not want? Ironically, the very same people who claim that human beings cannot understand God’s ways almost inevitably go on to add, either implicitly or explicitly, “But I know what God wants us to do!”

Why, after all, would a person go to certain churches and not others, read certain holy books, chant certain creeds, pray in certain ways, and participate in certain religious rituals – unless that person believed that they had at least a pretty accurate idea of what God thinks and desires? By their behavior, the religious apologists who make this argument show that they do not believe it themselves. Even if God exists, if his ways are truly beyond our comprehension, we would have no basis for ever being certain about his wants and expectations.

How do we know, for example, that God is not actually the Islamic deity Allah, creating deceptive evidence of Christianity to hasten doubters to their eternal condemnation (as the Qur’an says he will)? How does the apologist know that God has not sent him a strong delusion and forced him to believe a lie about who God is and what he wants (as the Bible says he does)? A believer could not even call this behavior morally wrong, since they would have to admit that God’s ways are not comprehensible by us, and that he might be performing such seemingly malevolent actions to bring about some greater good which they cannot perceive. In reality, of course, few are willing to entertain such radical skepticism about their own beliefs.

Granted, to use the apologists’ inconsistent behavior as a reason to dismiss their argument as false would be a fallacious use of tu quoque. The fact that apologists do not act in accordance with their own arguments does not show that those arguments are untrue. Rather, the point is that this argument buys the religious apologist nothing, because it undermines their arguments just as effectively as it undermines any atheist’s argument. It is a universal defeater, like the idea that we might all be deceived by a powerful Cartesian demon feeding us illusionary experiences of the world; possible in a strictly logical sense, but in practice a useless idea to contemplate. The apologists suppose that this argument is damaging to the atheist position but not damaging to their own, but this could not be farther from the truth.

It is always possible to claim that some plan, however bumbling or flawed it appears, is actually a secret and wise design. But what is missing is independent evidence of this fact, evidence not dependent upon the preconceptions of faith. And without such preconceptions, it is hard not to notice that what religious folk allege to be the plan of an omnipotent and benevolent super-being actually looks just like a set of post hoc rationalizations invented by fallible and self-justifying humans, interpreting the events of history in the way that paints them in the best possible light. If there is a God who wants us to believe in his secret plan, we have every right to expect evidence of that; and until such time, we are more than justified in maintaining a stance of skeptical doubt.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...