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not seeing god: atheism in the 21st century

Bob Seidensticker, of Cross Examined here at Patheos, contributed a chapter to the recent book Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century. In his piece, he joins a few of us in the first section who look to philosophically dismantle the notion of God. The book is set into three sections.

There is a great variety of writing and subject matter on offer, here, with the first section (Part One: DECONSTRUCTING GOD) dealing with philosophical, moral and theological issues with the God concept. The second section (Part Two: REFLECTING ON GODLESSNESS IN MODERN SOCIETY), deals with atheism within various contexts in modern society, from cinema to the military, politics to education. The final piece of the puzzle (Part Three: LOOKING TOWARD A FUTURE IN A GODLESS WORLD) asks the reader where we go from here, and seeks to give a few answers.

Please click on the link above or the cover to grab yourself a copy (UK link here).

Part of his chapter is here excerpted:

My passion is the apologetics debate—the arguments for and against Christianity. Atheists often focus on rebutting arguments put forward by Christians in favor of Christianity, such as the Design Argument, the Moral Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and so on. Let’s take the road less traveled and focus on, not rebuttals against these popular arguments, but arguments for atheism. I’ve picked seven of my favorites. They’re short and easy to understand, they’re not widely known, and they should provoke any opponent to think, which is the mark of a productive debate.

The Map of World Religions

Almost everyone is familiar with maps of world religions with colors showing the religions that predominate in different parts of the world. Have you ever wondered why you never see a Map of World Science? Imagine such an oddity. Over here on the map is where scientists believe in a geocentric solar system, and over there, a heliocentric one. This area is where they think that astrology can predict the future, and that area is where they reject the idea. Intelligent Design thinking reigns in the crosshatched area, and evolution in the dark gray area. Naturally, each of these different groups thinks of their opponents as heretics, and they have fought wars over their opposing beliefs.

This is nonsense. A new scientific theory isn’t location-specific, and, if it passes muster, it peacefully sweeps the world. Astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry replaced alchemy, and germ theory replaced evil spirits as a cause of disease. One scientist should get the same results from an experiment as another, regardless of their respective religions. Evolution, germ theory, Relativity, and the Big Bang are part of the consensus view among scientists, whether they are Christian, Muslim, atheist, or other.

Sure, there can be some not-invented-here thinking—scientists have egos, too—but this only slows the inevitable success of a new theory that better explains the evidence. Contrast this with the idea that Shintoism will sweep across America or Europe over the next couple of decades and replace Christianity, simply because it’s a theory that explains the facts of reality better. It works that way in science, not religion.

Let’s return to our map of world religions. Religions claim to give answers to the big questions—answers that science can’t yet give. Questions such as: What is our purpose? Or, Where did we come from? Or, Is there anything else out there? Or, What is science grounded on? But the map shows that the religious answers to those questions depend on where you are! Take the question, What is our purpose? If you live in Tibet or Thailand, Buddhism teaches that we are here to learn to cease suffering and reach nirvana. If you live in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, Islam teaches that we are here to submit to Allah. If you live in the United States, Christianity teaches that our purpose is to praise and worship God.

We ask the most profound questions of all, and the answers are location specific? What kind of truth depends on location?

For discovering reality, religion comes up short. Next time someone nods their head sagely and says, “Ah, but Christianity can answer life’s Big Questions,” remember how shallow that claim is. Sure, Christianity can answer the Big Questions. Anyone can, but are those answers based on anything? Are they worth listening to? The inability of religion to advance from its squabbling, multicolored map of world religion to science’s consensus view of reality overturns Christianity’s claim to have the one correct view.

The First Commandment Defeats Christian Claims

Let me propose this principle: a human-invented religion will look radically different from the worship of a real god. Human imagination or longing for the divine will cobble together a very poor imitation of the real thing. Supernatural reality is likely far more marvelous than whatever humans could dream up.

But religious historians tell us that the Yahweh of the Old Testament looks like just another Canaanite deity such as Asherah, Baal, Moloch, Yam, or Mot. What else could he be but just another invented god? The Bible itself admits this similarity. The book of Exodus gives God’s demand that the Israelites avoid foreign religions when they returned to Canaan. The first Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” God had to make sure that his people weren’t corrupted.

But wait a minute—how could they have been corrupted? The Israelites enter a land full of foreign gods—invented gods, obviously—but God had made plain the correct religion. How would those made-up gods look next to the real deal? The Hebrew religion, the only one that worshipped a real god, would be a stunning and brilliant jewel compared to the other religions’ tawdry plastic beads.

Think of it this way. Imagine that God provided Disney World for the Israelites but warned against moving into the filthy trailer park across the street. Why bother with the warning? How could anyone possibly be tempted? Similarly, with the Israelites given the correct religion, the only one that worshipped a real god, why bother with the first Commandment? How could God have ever been worried that another religion would be the least bit compelling?

Things are clearer once we realize that their religion didn’t look special. The prohibitions made sense because proto-Judaism looked similar to all the other Canaanite religions. Yahweh was the god of Israel just like Chemosh was the god of the Moabites and Moloch was the god of the Ammonites. The people in Israel knew that Chemosh and Moloch existed, they just didn’t worship them.

The Bible’s own prohibitions make clear that the god of the Old Testament was just another god not fundamentally different from any other god of the region, which means that Christianity’s own book defeats its claim of a single god, with all other gods invented, imagined, or false.

[To be continued in future posts.]

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...