There’s an argument that gets made a fair amount by religious believers. It gets made by more thoughtful theists and by, shall we say, less thoughtful ones; it gets made in forms that are marginally clever and forms that are laughably bad. But none of the versions are ultimately very good, and none of them are convincing unless you already believe in God.
Here’s the more fleshed-out version of it. Phenomenon (X) currently has no natural explanation. Given our current understanding of the physical world, Phenomenon (X) can’t have a natural explanation. Therefore, the explanation must be supernatural. Or, at the very least, it’s reasonable to think that the explanation is, or might be, supernatural.
In other words: The physical world is bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. But God, by definition, is not bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. God is magic, and he can do anything. Therefore, if we don’t currently understand the laws of cause and effect governing Phenomenon (X), the best explanation, or at least a marginally reasonable assumption, is God.
Example. In the physical world, effects have to have causes. Things can’t bring themselves into being, and things can’t just have existed forever. But the universe itself must either have (a) always existed, or (b) somehow come into being from nothingness. Therefore, the universe must have been brought into being by an entity that is not bound by the natural laws of cause and effect. In other words — by God. God is magic, and therefore he can have created himself or always have existed, and he can have created the universe out of nothing but himself and the void.
It is, in my opinion, a terrible argument. I want to talk about why.
Who says that Phenomenon (X) — say, the very existence of the universe itself — can’t possibly have a natural explanation?
Just because we don’t currently have a natural explanation for it, does that mean we never will?
I’m going to make a point that I’ve made approximately 90,690 times in this blog (so my apologies to people who are getting sick of it, I promise I’ll move past it in a moment): Look at history. Specifically, look at the number of times that we thought Phenomena (A, B, C, D, E) had supernatural causes. Had to have supernatural causes. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural.
And look at the number of times we were wrong. Look at the number of times that supernatural explanations for phenomena have been replaced by natural ones. It’s thousands. Tens, or even hundreds of thousands, depending on how specific the phenomena are that you’re talking about.
Now, look at the number of times we were wrong in the other direction. Look at the number of times we thought Phenomenon (Y) had to have natural, physical causes, and wound up being wrong about that. Look at the number of times that unexplained phenomena have been carefully, rigorously studied, and all the best evidence pointed to the cause being spirits, or metaphysical energy, or God.
It’s exactly zero.
The question of “Where did the Universe come from?” (or “Did the universe just always exist?” or “Why is there something instead of nothing?”) is currently an unanswered question. But that absolutely does not mean that it’s an unanswerable question. In fact, it’s a question we’re trying to answer. It’s a question that’s being looked into. Physicists and astronomers are working on an answer as we speak.
Now, if and when they do come up with an answer, it may boggle our tiny little minds. It may completely rewrite our way of thinking about the world — much the way that heliocentrism and evolution and relativity did. It may even make us completely re-think the very concepts of cause and effect. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be real. It doesn’t mean it won’t be right. And it doesn’t mean it won’t be an entirely natural, physical explanation.
The fact that we do not currently have a natural, physical answer to this question does not prove — or even imply — that no such answer exists.
Some people will probably argue that this response shows a faith in science that is identical to a faith in God; that it’s essentially saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a natural/ scientific one,” in the same way that religious believers say, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a spiritual one.”
But it’s not.
It’s not a response based on faith. It’s a response based on evidence: the evidence of history. It’s not a blind faith in science; it’s an observation that, when it comes to unanswered questions about the world, the answers have always wound up being natural and physical… and that therefore, given any currently unanswered question, the existence of a natural, physical answer is an immeasurably better bet.
Let me put it this way. If the universe were created, and intervened with on any sort of regular basis, by a being who was magic, a being who was completely unrestricted by the natural laws of cause and effect and who had no limits to his magical power… wouldn’t that just be obvious?
Would there be any arguments at all about his existence?
Wouldn’t there be violations of the natural laws of cause and effect on a regular basis? Heck, would there even BE natural laws of cause and effect?
That’s not what the universe looks like. The universe operates by laws of physical cause and effect… laws that are remarkably consistent. Phenomenally consistent. “Insert superlative of your choice” consistent.
Claims of miracles — i.e., supernatural interventions that violate the natural laws of cause and effect — consistently fall apart on closer inspection. They just don’t happen.
Given that this is the case, we have one of three options:
A: There is a God, but he not only intervenes in the physical universe: he intervenes in our perceptions and our understanding, making us think that the universe operates by consistent physical laws when really it doesn’t. Otherwise known as the “Matrix” option, or the “stoned college sophomore discovering solipsism for the first time” option. Theoretically possible, but not very plausible. It’s also not falsifiable or testable one way or the other, and is therefore useless as a hypothesis.
B: There is a God, and he created the universe, but he does not intervene in it in any way, shape or form. Since he created it, he just sits back and watches as it unfolds according to the laws of cause and effect. This is the Deism option. Also theoretically possible, and kind of hard to argue against, since the effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zilch.
But for that exact reason, it’s also not falsifiable or testable in any way, and is also useless as a hypothesis.
And, more to the point — it’s completely irrelevant. Again, for that exact same reason. If there is an infinitely powerful magical being who brought the universe into being, but who never intervenes in that universe in any way… why should we care? What difference would it make? The effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zero. What reason is there to believe in him, or to act as if he exists?
Or… and this is the one I’m going to go with, if for no other reason than Occam’s Razor…
C: There is no God.
Julia Sweeney said it best, in her amazing performance piece “Letting Go of God.” After a long, arduous journey of spiritual searching, starting with her original Catholicism and going through New Age spirituality and vague beliefs that “God is nature” or “God is love,” she came to this conclusion: “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”
The world does not behave as if a magical being who could do anything were running the show. The world behaves as if it operated, entirely and 100%, according to physical laws of cause and effect.
There’s a point Ingrid keeps making, and it’s time I brought it up. She points out that every scrap of “evidence” that there is for religion comes from human beings. It comes from parents and religious teachers, from prophets and from sacred books, from just sitting around in your room thinking really hard.
And the “God is Magic” argument is exactly the same.
The “God is Magic” argument comes dangerously close to Anselm’s famously crappy ontological argument. That argument, for those who aren’t familiar, goes roughly like this: “I can imagine a completely perfect being, i.e. God. But an aspect of perfection would have to be actual existence: if something didn’t actually exist, by definition it wouldn’t be perfect. Therefore, God exists.” (No, really. Stop laughing. I am not making this up. I actually had to learn this when I was a religion major, as one of the classic arguments in favor of God’s existence.)
The “God is Magic” version of this essentially goes, “I am defining God as that which can always have existed and can create universes out of nothing. This magical God would provide a very neat and tidy explanation for any unanswered questions we might have. Therefore, God exists.”
But the fact that you can imagine and define such a being does not provide even one scrap of evidence that he actually exists.
I realize that atheists sound a bit like a broken record when we say this, but it’s important and it’s true: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does: to prove that God is the best explanation for why things are the way they are, or even a plausible explanation that we should seriously consider.
Example: If you believe in theistic evolution — the theory that evolution is a process created and guided by God to create life and people — you can’t just say, “It could have happened that way. You can’t prove that it didn’t.” You need to show some evidence for why that’s a better hypothesis than evolution just happening as a natural process. You need to point to structures or processes that could not have evolved naturally, or to transitions in the fossil record that show unmistakable signs of intervention. (The intelligent design crowd has tried to do this, with laughably bad results.)
And if you believe in a God-created universe, you have to show some evidence for why that’s a better explanation for the existence of the universe than, for instance, the idea that universe has simply always existed. You can’t just say, “Well, we don’t know how it happened, and it had to happen somehow, and God is as good an explanation as any.” You can’t just say that the universe is impossible, define God as that which can do the impossible, and call that an answer.
The “God is Magic” argument is really just another version of the “God of the gaps”; the God that is the answer to whatever gaps there currently are in the body of scientific knowledge; the blue crayon that gets used to fill in all the empty spaces in the coloring book… despite the fact that blue has never, ever proven to be the right color.
And it’s not actually an explanation. It doesn’t offer any clarity about why things are the way they are — a magical God could presumably have made things be any way at all, and the answer to why would ultimately just be, “God’s whim.” And it doesn’t offer any predictive power — ditto.
It’s not actually an explanation. It’s just a way of getting around the necessity of offering an explanation.