The following is a transcript of the first portion (prepared statements) of a debate between me and Professor Richard Swinburne, emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University, held at Florida State University in 2006. Further portions will be posted as I decipher my own handwriting.
I thank the sponsors of this event for bringing me all the way from early winter in Buffalo to late fall in Tallahassee for this discussion. This is homecoming for me, since I graduated from a certain local illustrious university, in the last century, before moving on to Harvard Divinity School and later to Oxford.
I don’t know whether this makes me a black sheep or a favorite son, but whatever the case it is nice to be back. It is also nice to share space with Professor Swinburne. While I have FSU in common with many of you, I have the Oxford theological tradition (if there is only one) in common with him.
Let me say at the outset that you should put aside any assumptions you may have about this being a debate between an atheist and a believer. It is a debate about what we can know and meaningfully say about God.
I maintain that there is no difference between a God who does not exist and a God about whom nothing can be known. That being so, what we know and “where” we know it from becomes immeasurably important. I’ll come back to that in a couple of minutes.
The theme of this debate is posed as a question, Is there a God? rather than as a proposition such as God Exists. I am going to say that there is no God, and I am going to make this case using the following premises: As I do so, please keep in mind that argumentation is not the exclusive property of philosophers. I was trained as an historical theologian, and historical argument figures heavily in what I want to say. Moreover, the problem of God is too important to be left to philosophers.
First: All existence is historical and the existence of persons is historical. (Hic Rhodus hic salta.)
All real existence is historical and we do not know things outside history. By historical I do not mean merely temporal. Temporal means literally existing in time and refers to duration. It means a measurement, so that my temporal span upon earth might be 90 years or 60 years. Relatively speaking, I favor 90. But my temporal life is pretty boring and flat. Historical existence supplies the content; it’s literally the story of my life as a person—an individual with drives, and habits, and the ability to act more or less freely.
My personal life—my life as a person–is more than temporal. It can be told as a story with a beginning, middle and end. I can tell it, or someone else can tell it. But the requirement for telling it is my historical existence.
I can also lie about things to do with this historical existence. I can tell my biographer than I won a Pulitzer prize, when I didn’t, had seven children when I had none, loved to kayak when I have never been near the water, and enjoy opera when I only listen to country music. If I am the author of my history, I will know what is true and what is not (as Abraham did when he lied about his relationship with Sarah in Egypt). If my biographer is a good historian, there are ways in which he can find out whether I am lying.
In short, historical existence means the ability to test what we say about historical persons. And all real existence, even the existence of the universe, is historical in that, more or less, its story can be told.
Second: Not all stories are the stories of real persons. By design or through error, writers of history can also invent false persons, not just false bits of true histories as we find, for example, in Herodotus. When this is done innocently, for explanatory purpose—say in trying to explain floods, diseases, or the origins of the universe or the origin of different languages, things which have not always been explainable in scientific terms—we call the story myth.
Myths are not always understood by their hearers as false stories. They are often written down, regarded with reverence because time invests them with authority. They are thought to be true, in the sense they possess meaning and value.
And myths are not only very old but are set in ages before the ages began—not just once upon a time but “In the Beginning,” or “When on High.” Myths alone can tell stories about primordial time because history relies on knowledge gleaned from records, preferably records contemporary with the events described. No records of the beginning of time exist, except in mythology.
Even if myths are regarded as true, or sacred, by the believers in a religious community, they are false in the sense that they are populated by false persons and events. That is why very devout Christians will ordinarily reject the assertion that the Genesis creation story is a myth: because they accept the idea that myths are false with respect to actual persons and events.
False persons come in different shapes and sizes. Santa Claus is a false person, and not only that but one whose existence you are encouraged to reject at age six. If you still believe in him at age forty, your mother will have a talk with you. Probably the psychiatrist and the parish priest too. You may argue that you know his story by heart, the names of his reindeer, that you have always received presents at Christmas, and that you can sing seven different songs about him being jolly and fat. But the psychiatrist will say “You are wrong.” There is no such person. There is just a story.
Rumplestiltskin is a false person. The six-foot rabbit called Harvey that Elwood P. Dowd talks to is a false person. We say they are false because the prima facie evidence for their existence, their story, is false. Mind you, it has temporal existence—it has lasted—but the story itself is false. I might also mention that some false persons, like Odysseus and Abraham, are so vivid that we want them to be true, and that others like the biblical God are so entrenched in psyche and society that we wish them to be true.
The degree of enthusiasm for wanting false persons to be true persons has no bearing on their existence.
Once you have given up Santa Claus and six-foot rabbits, you will hardly be distressed to know that the gods are false.
Prometheus did not spoil Zeus’s plan for a tranquil world of immortal bliss. He is a false person. Leda was not really ravished by Zeus in swan form because both are false persons. With a little practice, you will have no difficulty in rejecting out of hand the creation stories of the Mixtex Indians, the story of Pangu creating the world from his body or the perfecting of the first world by Nuwo, all of Norse mythology, and the story of the flood in the Gilgamesh.
You will reject the gods and heroes as false persons who nevertheless are enshrined in stories that were believed widely and tenaciously in their time and culture. What caused their rejection is a better and more compelling story that made better sense of the information at hand. The innate skepticism that characterizes homo curiosus led to better and more adequate explanations of how things came to exist and we came to exist as a species on this planet.
Historically speaking, explanation of all events moves away from god and the gods, not towards a singular omni-purpose god as the explanation of all events.
At some point, a skeptical professor of religion will say to you (maybe even an Oxford theologian) that the Bible also “contains” myths, and that the core myth is the myth of a god named Yahweh, molded from the gods of Hebrew tribal lore, who made the world, established the stars in their orbit, destroys it out of frustration at human sin, promises to redeem it, after destroying it yet again, sometime (but not next week), and in the meantime watches unslumberingly over Israel.
He might also say, depending on how brave he is and where he teaches, that many—not all—of the biblical heroes are false persons, like the false persons of other mythologies.
He may stop at the acknowledgment of particular falsities, or he may go further.
To go further is to say that the god of the Bible is a false person, like the gods of other mythological narratives with their odd blend of real place names, plausible battles, lovely poetry, ritual and law.
Yahweh, like the procession of gods before and around him, is a false person embedded in a story about his dealing with the world, the raqia (firmament) he is said to have created. I am not sure Professor Swinburne would put it quite this way, but it is clear to many people and quietly agreeable to many more that the God of the Bible is a false person. He has never existed historically, temporally, or supertemporally. His story, of course, does exist. It is a myth made by human hands. It did not exist even four thousand years ago.
Let me put this another way. True persons are persons whose story is more than imaginary, persons whose reality, actions, attributes, and identity can be established using the normal laws of historical evidence. Put bluntly, they have an existence outside their story, just as any story about me or Charlemagne is an expression, a snapshot, not the same thing as me or Charlemagne. There are billions of real persons who have really existed outside any story about them. But there are only millions who have existed both in story and in fact. And there are many thousands of stories about persons who have never existed, whose stories are so improbable that they disprove rather than support their historical reality. If Adam and Eve really existed, their story would not be the same as their actual existence. If they did not exist, then they are false persons, the same as Zeus and Pangu. But it is, in fact, their story that establishes their falsity.
Third: If the God of Christian theism is a false person his existence is a conceptual existence, an imaginary existence. The idea, which evolves, of supreme or maximal greatness attached to this being (by theologians like Anselm, for instance) must also be false. Moreover his falseness can be demonstrated using simple if seemingly superficial tests: He is not heard of apart from his story. He shares his attributes and parts of his story with his neighbor gods whose stories are equally improbable. His story, in keeping with the pattern of false stories generally, is inconsistent and contradictory, even in terms of describing him.
But I acknowledge that even if I could get agreement that the god of the Bible is a false person, I would not have proved that there is not a god, just that there is not this god, the Lord god of armies (hosts), whose name is Mighty.
Fourth: The God of theology and the God of the philosophers is a rewritten myth, but forms part of the same account of God.
Early Christian theology borrowed certain philosophical ideas from classical thought, so that the whole project became an attempt to construct a philosophically plausible god from the frustratingly deficient god of story and Hebrew myth.
For example, using the so called Omni-properties of God that date back to the Greek idea of Zeus the all-seeing, Christian theologians preferred using the so called via eminentiae to describe their remodeled god: God is omnipotent. They do this with the aid of biblical texts. Doesn’t St. Matthew say With God all things are possible? Yes, But doesn’t the book of Judges say that “the Lord was with Judah” but was “unable to drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron”—Yahweh, not yet having developed his powers of omniscience, defeated in battle by armies with superior technology and espionage? Again, yes.
The theologians claimed that God is omniscient, though a core biblical myth records that he changed his mind about what to do with mankind and was “sorry he ever decided to create men upon the earth” (Gen. 6.7)–not only not omniscient, but not far-sighted.
The medieval Church insisted that, like Plato’s Good, the God of revelation is immutable, unchanging, but then drove its theologians to distraction trying to show how god could be ontologically changeless, yet go from being fatherless to a father, satisfied to angry, creator to destroyer, punishing judge to redeemer.
I am not going to go into the inconsistencies of the biblical text–the biblical contradictions–with the glee of a nineteenth century village atheist because this is precisely the kind of thing one expects in stories about false persons–that is to say, what we expect of mythology. Christianity offered to solve this problem by closing the book and breaking God into three persons and then gluing him back together in the trinity as a union in “essence”—father/creator-son/redeemer-holy spirit—well who knows really. But three has been a nice number for philosophy since antiquity.
The “classical” way of thinking about God as timeless and changeless—eternal and immutable if you like theological terms–comes from Plato in part and partly, a bit later, from Aristotle–especially those bits that imagine god as a being known from effects and identifiable with causes.
Many believers have no interest at all in this God because he is too abstract or intellectual, too “ideal,” not the robust God of hymn, war and Bible story. And yet, from an early period, Christian theology tried to fuse ideas from classical philosophy to sacred scripture—to its particular revelation, taking the untidy remnants of the religious past and repackaging them as “teaching.”
Much—most–of theology is the history of that effort. Mind you, the “person” we get at the end is still the false person we started with. But it is a story now being told by (chiefly) men with changed interests, people for whom the god of the Bible was no longer enough to explain the complexities of the theology they had invented for themselves, the theological tasks they had set for themselves—in short, inconsistent with their project.
The god of the bible, if not an inconvenience or a metaphor, was (at least) inconvenient and slightly embarrassing.
Conclusion: I extend the notion of false personhood, therefore, to any attempt, however distant to the biblical God it may stand, to identify a personal god possessed of attributes, maxi or mini, or to claim for this being individuality, agency, purpose, and action, however direct, however indirect.
Because I include theology as part of his story, I claim that the falseness of his story undermines and defeats the possibility of there being an equivalent or similar person resembling him: that is, the demonstrable false personhood of the God of Christian theism offers significant reason to think there is no other god corresponding in attributes to this God.
Not coincidentally, since we define monotheism as the reduction of the belief in many specialized gods to the belief in one supreme all-purpose god, such as the God of the Bible, establishing that this God does not exist is really the same as establishing that no God exists.
This is true whether we simply acknowledge that there is no position less than monotheism that would leave us a god to believe in (what whole number is less than 1?) or whether we say that most–virtually all—debates about the existence of God in the philosophy of religion and theology have really been debates about this god and not some other god.
But this claim is not radical. It is simply a matter of common sense suffocated by the pretext that a specious philosophical god can out- last the discussion of historicity.
Think back to Santa Claus, who is “kind of” omniscient, knowing who’s naughty and nice, but not really (maybe he has spies under your bed) or perhaps he just knows. If I say to you, as a matter of conscience: “Okay, Santa doesn’t live at the north pole, doesn’t have reindeer that fly, doesn’t squeeze down three billion chimneys between sunrise in Australia and sundown in Topeka, but that’s no reason not to believe in a thin man in a blazer in Miami who supports the Christian Children’s Fund with generous donations and it is precisely the same guy,” you will say—“No, it’s not: that’s not Santa Claus.”
Similarly, if I say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who spoke to Moses in a fiery bush, parted the Red Sea waters, spoke through the prophets, destroyed Sodom and sent his only son into the world as the expiation for sin doesn’t exist, but can I interest you in a god who is 52% probable (Richard Swinburne’s better-than-even-chance estimate of God’s real existence) to explain the orderliness of the universe, our intelligent perception of it, human life on this planet, and some other stuff as well, you would be right to be skeptical. It’s not the same thing.
The difference between a God who has none of the attributes of his myth and a God who does not exist is 0.
The god of Christian theism is fatally vulnerable to this assessment.
The history of God does not permit us to think of God at a discounted rate, as a person whose existence explains everything and who acts in such and such a way in relation to balance, proportion and logic, such that everything works out the way it does. This God cannot be used as the explanation of anything-–let alone everything–because he is himself completely unexplained—indeed, more unexplained than the biblical god who was assigned the personality of a temperamental king, a petty tyrant who played favorites and enjoyed arbitrary displays of power.
That kind of god, even if preposterous when projected onto the global screen of philosophy and science, is at least more comprehensible than a God who is nothing more than the sum total of solutions to the problems his existence entails. Swinburne’s god, who is said to explain “everything there is and not just some narrow range of data” is that kind of god.
To summarize: God is a false person whose story runs from the purely mythological to pseudo-philosophical attempts to restate and revise the primitive data. The suggestion that God is a false person is not based on classical atheist objections to the existence of God but on historical judgment that weighs heavily against the view that God exists.