Attribute and Affect

I have argued against theologians like Richard Swinburne that they play a dangerous game in moving from abstracted notions of God to specific characteristics of God and the doctrines of Christianity. In the long run, the snowman they build feature by feature is still snow. It will melt. Both believing and unbelieving philosophers of religion have played this game for a very long time–perhaps since the time of Aquinas–but the bottom line is: No one is an atheist on general principles. There is some X that you reject, and that X comes with attributes or “properties” attached. Any working notion of ontology requires not merely existence but attribution.

This is why the most damaging arguments against ontology, going back to the eighteenth century, begin with the criticism that “existence” is a state (being) and not a property. Anselm had argued against his hypothetical unbeliever that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived [to exist],” and then took the leap to existence by stating that the existence of the greatest conceivable thing can not be merely conceptual since perfection requires actuality. Anselm limited this state of perfection to being and not to racehorses or desert islands because ordinary things can be conceived in degrees but not in states of perfection. God thus becomes a supreme case of perfection existing in actuality because it cannot simply exist in the mind for — “Si enim vel in solo intellectu est potest cogitari esse et in re quod maius est” (Proslogion 2). Now that you have the snow, it is possible to add goodness (Aquinas’s summum bonum), and the so-called Omni-properties of God (knowledge, presence, benevolence, etc.) as well as the Not-properties of God: infinite, immutable, impassible, etc. Snowman, meet your maker.

It is perfectly possible to believe in snow without believing in snowmen. But in historical theology we have long come to accept that the God of the western tradition, and by and large the God rejected by the first brave souls of the pre-Enlightenment, like John Biddle in 1615, is more slush than shape–to wit, Biddle on trying to make sense of the Trinity:

“The major premise is quite clear inasmuch as if we say that the Holy Spirit is God and yet distinguished from God then it implies a contradiction. The minor premise that the Holy Spirit is distinguished from God if it is taken personally and not essentially is against all reason:First, it is impossible for any man to distinguish the Person from the Essence of God, and not to frame two Beings or Things in his mind. Consequently, he will be forced to the conclusion that there are two Gods.Secondly, if the Person be distinguished from the Essence of God, the Person would be some Independent Thing. Therefore it would either be finite or infinite. If finite then God would be a finite thing since according to the Church everything in God is God Himself. So the conclusion is absurd. If infinite then there will be two infinites in God, and consequently the two Gods which is more absurd than the former argument.Thirdly, to speak of God taken impersonally is ridiculous, as it is admitted by everyone that God is the Name of a Person, who with absolute sovereignty rules over all. None but a person can rule over others therefore to take otherwise than personally is to take Him otherwise than He is.”

Granted that the early atheist thinkers were less concerned with the Big Picture than with dismantling inherited beliefs member by member. Many had long since concluded that the wheels of theology spun around doctrines rather than biblical texts, which had been gratuitously laid on or cherry picked to support beliefs that otherwise had been fashioned by councils without any scriptural warrants at all. A classic case, as it relates to Biddle’s long winded dilemma, above, was the so-called Johannine Comma. Based on a sequence of extra words which appear in 1 John 5:7-8 in some early printed editions of the Greek New Testament:

ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες [ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. 8 καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ] τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν

and which were included by the King James translators, thus:

“For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one…”

Is this not the Trinity, beloved of both Catholic and Protestants since the fourth century? Well, no, because the italicized words are absent from Greek manuscripts, and only appear in the text of four late medieval manuscripts where they seem to be the helpful clarification of a zealous copyist, originating as his marginal note. Think of it as new snow.

The point of these examples is that modern unbelief is highly confused about the difference between snow and snowmen, between being and somethingness. Simply put, what does it mean to say “I don’t believe in God,” if (as many atheists have reminded me) that is all an atheist is required to say to be a member of the club? My query is really the same at Robert Frost’s poetical question in “Mending Wall”: “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offense.”

I maintain that it is impossible to accept Anselm’s ontological argument. Kant was right. “Existence is not a predicate.” The ontological argument illicitly treats existence as a property that things can either possess or lack: to say that a thing exists is not to “attribute” existence to that thing, but to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified–expressed and experienced–in the world. Exemplification requires attributes. That is why the obscure language and syllogisms of philosophy (for the above, e.g.: “S is p” is true iff there is something in the world that is S, satisfying the description “is p”) have never really appealed to robust varsity atheists. But Kant’s critique of ontology slices both ways: if ontology is defeasible because existence is not a predicate, it means that the statements God exists is not falsifiable because there is nothing in the world corresponding to God, at least not of the S is p variety.

Kant

Many atheists know this, and they also know that their rejection of “theism” (a very funny word derived from the Greek θεός — a god, hence, a-theism, being without such a belief) is not based on snowflakes but fully formed snowmen: the God of “Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) “theism” who comes to us in a manifestly literary, messy, and inconsistent way in scripture. You cannot be an atheist in the abstract; you have to be an atheist in terms of attributions that have been applied in specific historical moments and which can be traced to particular historical contexts–such as the legislative “creation” of the Trinity in 325 AD. You must be walling out something.

I am perfectly at home with this kind of unbelief, comfortable with the truism that most people are atheists with respect to 99% of all the gods who were ever believed to exist. The statement is inadvertently poignant because it suggests that what we find it easy to contradict or reject are specific “attributes” or characterizations, and then to construct from these a more complete rejection of the whole picture. Every clever schoolkid knows the game and the logic: How can a God who is all good tolerate famine, cancer, premature death? How can a God who is all-wise put the prostate near to the male urinary tract (was he cutting costs?); Why would a God who is all powerful not create us, like Adam, in a post-adolescent, decision-making state free from high school, acne, and nagging parents? Note that what is being rejected are the attributes laid on this God, attributes which are construed from “S”: the state of existence as we know it.

Conveniently, for unbelievers, the rejection of attributes is facilitated by books thought to reveal the nature and purposes of God himself, especially the Bible and the Koran. The existence of texts that were never designed for use in philosophical and theological argument is a treasure chest for unbelievers–full of informal literary proofs that the God made from scriptural snow doesn’t correspond to the God made from theological snow: His whole story is an epic tragedy that could have been avoided if he had but exercised his omniscience and power at the beginning of time, avoided making fruit trees, or refrained from making Adam, or simply said “Apology accepted” when the First Couple betrayed his sole commandment. The manifest insufficiency and limitedness of this literary deity measured by the philosophical yardstick brought into the Church with theology–moments of remorse (Genesis 6,6) and petulance (6.1-16) and violence–flood, war, disease, death–makes the job of the skeptic a walk in the Garden.

What the unbeliever discovers in an amateur way is the composite nature of tradition: God-traditions that developed in Jerusalem and Athens being spliced together with sometimes implausible ingenuity and impossible contiguity. The illegitimate move is for the skeptic to conclude that the process of development is in some sense a “system” of untruths devised by ignorant or malicious men to keep the facts hidden or science suppressed. The real story, like all real stories, is much more complicated. But science does not emerge from the total exposure of the God traditions as deliberately false–the wreckage of a false system on the shoals of fact. It arises because of the inadequacy of the explanatory power of religion: the appearance of nature beneath the melting snow, to cop a phrase from Emerson.

End of winter

I think it is important, if only at an educational level, for unbelievers to avoid the error to which their commitment easily gives rise. One is a version of what W.K. Wimsatt called in 1954, in conjunction with literary criticism, the “affective” fallacy. He used the expression to mean that the ultimate value of a piece of literature (or art) cannot be established on the basis of how it affects a reader or viewer:


“The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism [ . . . which . . .] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism [with the result that] the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.”

Applied to the God traditions, atheists are fairly quick to judge religion solely on the basis of its (presumed) affect on believers, such that the details of the question of God’s existence and the implications of belief for everyday life disappear. We can see this tendency especially in the writings of atheists who cherry pick the toxic texts of scripture to conclude that believers who accept such stories as true are delusional or dysfunctional. I remember listening passively at an Easter Vigil celebration many years ago as the following, called the “Song of Moses” from Exodus 15, was read out:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
2The Lord is my strength and my might,*
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.

4‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.*
5The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
9The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.”
10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

11‘Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?
12You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.

Invested with the spirit of Monty Python, I struggled not to laugh: God is great–just look how many Egyptians he killed, how many wives would now be husbandless, how many daughters fatherless. The vast majority of worshipers around me listened inattentively. Some slept. It was the drone of words. The same liturgy would have been performed in 1278. But no one would have heard very much because it would have been executed only in Latin.

To be affected by such passages (even if the effect is indifference) is a function of human perception. To conclude that the people who endure such banality in the name of religion need to be rescued from their belief in the God who seems to like to drown people or reduce their sinful cities to ashes is the affective fallacy. For every smitten, leprous evildoer and every reference to Israel behaving like a whore, there are passages of immense beauty, human pathos, literary quality and even historical importance.

To deny this human quality is to make the text disappear in the interest of sticking to a narrow and unformed reaction to it, normally based on a lack of familiarity with Hebrew (or Hellenistic) literary tradition, story telling, and historical context. Ironically, it is precisely this same lack of familiarity that permits a fundamentalist to accept “the Bible” in its undifferentiated and inspired totality as the word of God–whose imperfections can be overlooked as part of a divine plan that the book does not reveal in its entirety: 1 Corinthians 13.12.

A healthy skepticism is always preferable to uninformed credulity. But I maintain that unbelievers are often terribly credulous when it comes to their view of the positions they have taken. The fact that biblical passages can be shocking to modern sensibilities has no bearing on their “truth” at a literary, cultural, or experiential level. Nor can the value be determined by taking an average of nice texts and nasty texts without exploring individual judgments and categories. “Everything,” Jacques Barzun once told a resolute graduate student who had made up her mind about what a poem really meant, “is a seminar.” Without the seminar, we turn impressions into conclusions, and that is where the affective fallacy leaves us.

Barzun

To say that one does not believe in the God whose attributes are those (more or less, and with no consistency) described in the Bible puts the unbeliever in the company of hundreds of thousands of believers. To say that one does not accept the God of theology, with or without the reconcilable attributes of literary biblical tradition, probably would not greatly reduce that company.

The remaining issue, as John Wisdom once put it, is whether believing in a God without attributes is possible at all, or no different from not believing in God.

Is there a God? Swinburne v. Hoffmann

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.
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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.

Duns Scotus

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.

Harvey and Dowd

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.

God evicting Adam and Eve

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.

Noah's ark, complete with chimney

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.

Yahweh on his chariot (coin)

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.