H.E. Baber recently wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “Unverifiable God is still good.” In this article she makes a number of claims that I find incredibly problematic, such as a strange conflation of the notion of philosophical zombies and the distinction between a world in which God exists and one where He does not, the implication that Hume was a verificationinst, and the suggestion that that verificationism is the “bogey” of the religious believer. I will not address the first two questions here, and on this last question I will be brief so as to get to a couple of important points raised in the rest of the article. Talking about the concern over verificationism, Baber asks the (supposedly) difficult question, “What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?” She does not explicitly answer this question. Rather, she attempts to make the argument that such the question of God’s existence is intelligible by comparing it to the question of philosophical zombies. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with either verificationism or the notion of philosophical zombies, do not worry. I don’t think it matters here. Put simply, the answer to Baber’s question, assuming one has some clearly defined concept of God that allows for Him to be invisible, intangible, hidden, and make no difference to the way the world works (admittedly a criterion tough, and perhaps impossible, to fill), the answer is simple. The difference is that in one case you have something, namely God, and in the other you do not. Whether or not that thing is detectable is irrelevant to the fact that it either exists or does not.
That out of the way, there are other issues about this article that need to be addressed. The first one is this assertion by Baber:
I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits, so I have never been disappointed. And, like most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.
I do not think this in any way this represents the views of most “educated Christians.” In fact, I have never personally met a single Christian who holds anything like this view. The empirical claims of the the Bible are false? The existence of God makes no difference to the way the world operates? Belief in God should make no difference to the way we live? Not only have I never met anyone who holds this view, I do not think even Baber holds it. That last point on the list is pretty broad: “…religious belief should [not] make any difference to the way we live.” I am not at all sure I even know how she means this. Certainly, she would not have written this article if she did not believe in God, and that writing seems to be some aspect of her life. I mean, it looks like Baber has put forth quite a bit of effort into defending this particular belief in her life, and that is directly the result of her belief. In fact, there is no way to enumerate all the things that Baber has done in her life because of her belief that would have been different had she not held such a belief. That’s the nature of belief in general, as has been pointed out before on this blog. Beliefs inform our actions in that each action we take is based upon a particular set of beliefs, however mundane. When someone puts a key in a door to unlock it, it is because they hold a certain set of beliefs which may or may not be justified or true. That person has to believe that their senses are getting the world right, that keys unlock doors, that the door is locked, that this key is the one that will unlock this door, that the lock on the door is not broken, and on and on. So, of course, all of our beliefs do and should make a difference in the way we live. I really have no idea what it means for Baber to say otherwise.
Someone might suggest here that what Baber intended was how one should view morality, but that does not seem to be true either. If I believe God prefers my behavior to be one way rather than another, that seems to be a religious belief that affects what I think I am morally obligated to do. I do not know how much of the Bible Baber wants to throw out, but, as she calls herself a Christian, it seems that at least she would want to keep Christ’s moral teachings. In that case, as someone who holds that Christ’s teachings were in some way better than others, and as Christ is related to God in some significant fashion, then one should live their life differently on the basis of that set of beliefs. So, no matter what you take Baber to mean, this idea that religious beliefs should make no difference to the way we live is just wrong.
Then there’s this whole business of educated Christians not believing the empirical claims of the Bible in general. I think this is just a false statement as survey after survey shows that Christians of all levels of education take things like the virgin birth, Christ rising from the dead, and any number of miracles to be true. I do not know how Baber wants to cash out “educated Christian” here, but it looks like the only way she could do this is to play the “No True Scotsman” game and declare that anyone who held those beliefs was not really an “educated Christian.” Otherwise, there is just no way to say this statement is true as, empirically, Christians with educations do hold the beliefs Baber declares they do not.
Next I want to address a point that I just find strange. After making the case that the version of God in which Baber believes has absolutely no effect on anything, she poses the question:
…what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.
I would take it that, assuming the belief was true, the reason one would want to believe it is because, in general, one wants to believe true things. But I do not know that “want” has much of anything to do with that. What I mean is, someone might prefer to believe in a god who saved babies from fires, healed amputees, and would provide us with a pleasant after-life. That might be the thing in which someone wants to believe. However, if there is no reason to do that, if, for example, they think that God does none of those things yet does, in fact, exist, then their wants would be irrelevant. They would believe in what they thought was true, regardless of whether or not it was preferable, in the same way one “believes in” hurricanes and nuclear bombs even if it was preferable that those things did not exist. With that in mind, I just find this whole line of thinking strange, and I just cannot see what Baber is getting at when she asks why anyone would want to believe in a god that makes no difference.
In the end Baber says she believes because:
God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.
I confess that I do not follow this at all. Baber has already declared that God, her version of God, at least, “does not answer prayers, give our lives ‘meaning’, or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.” So how is this the “ultimate aesthetic object”? How is it beautiful, this thing that does nothing and cannot be experienced? How does it have glory or, more importantly, power? What does it even mean to talk about ultimate power having no influence on anything? What sensual pleasure is there in a thing that is in no way able to be sensed? And what does it matter if the world “isn’t good enough”? In what way does that serve as evidence for God’s existence? And how is the world better, how is it good enough, with a god in it that is wholly impotent?
To me, it appears the the vision of God Baber spelled out as the object of her belief earlier has none of the attributes that she claims serve as her reasons for belief in God. As such, I find that her conclusion follows in no way from the rest of her argument, the result being that nothing of any substance is said in the entire article.
I don’t know what Baber had in mind when she wrote this article. What I do know is that this argument is the kind that I hear from time to time from the intellectual elite who do believe in God. They claim to have such belief, but their god in no way reflects anything like the God in which other believers put their faith. Even worse, when they begin to spell out what their god is and why they believe in any such thing, all you end up with is a group of words with little to no real meaning. In the end, it looks like they are not saying anything at all.