As a followup to an essay from last year in which I answered Ten Questions That an Atheist Can’t Answer, I thought I would now pose the opposite: ten questions that a theist can’t answer. Let’s see how well my theist readers fare. (NB: Seeing that Christianity has the largest number of adherents of all the religions in the world, my questions are directed primarily toward Christians with a nod toward Biblical writings, though it does seem to me that any Muslim — and therefore a believer in Jahannam — could respond to questions 9 and 10.)
1. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth.” Nice opening line. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Love that “darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Also, that comma after “form” is great. It’s beautiful writing. Actually, it’s more the case that the King James Version is a beautiful translation. But never mind literary aesthetics. I want you to notice instead that the Bible opens with a wildly bold assertion: that God created the Universe. As far as I know, this claim is never substantiated anywhere in the Bible. We’re only encouraged to assume that God created the Universe, and then let things go on from there. But if the Bible is supposed to be the go-to source on how existence came to be, bold assertions need to be substantiated. Can any of my theist readers point me to where evidence is presented in the Bible that supports the assertion that a Celestial Being (“God”) created the Universe? I’m having no luck chasing down this evidence. Thanks for your help.
2. The Big Bang is regarded by some as the “beginning” of the Universe; others refer to it as a “change of state.” Whichever it is (I don’t know if there’s a third hypothesis), a plain fact about our Universe remains: There is no evidence that a super-natural source (deliberate hyphen for emphasis) is behind it or set it into motion. Consider “demonic possession.” It was once thought to be the cause of certain ailments; today, we’re well acquainted with the germ theory of disease and neurological disorders. Thor was once believed to be the cause of storms; today, we understand that meteorological forces account for thunder and lightning. You may not know anything about neurology or meteorology, but you have no reason to believe that the specialists in these fields are lying. You accept what they say, not on faith but on trust, and anyway, an investigation into the veracity of what neurologists and meteorologists say can always be had. By contrast, you don’t trust cosmology’s current understanding of the Universe, that there was a “Big Bang” that led to the expansion of the Universe and that this happened roughly fourteen billion years ago. People once said “God did it” as answer to what caused disease. People once said “God did it” as a way to account for storms. So if “God did it” now seems foolish in light of what is now commonly understood about hurricanes or a neurological ailment — a person writhing on the ground is having an epileptic episode and is not possessed by a “demon” — why do you resort to “God did it” for the Big Bang when a natural answer, if we ever find one, will account for it?
3. The immensity of the Universe is astounding. Take a look at this depiction of just one “corner” of it. It’s a supercluster called Laniakea.
Scientific American describes superclusters as “regions of space that are densely packed with galaxies [and] are the biggest structures in the Universe”; at least 100,000 superclusters are known to exist. For Laniakea in particular, I have a belief that I cannot substantiate: I believe life exists elsewhere in this supercluster (and elsewhere in the Universe, for that matter). There are a number of reasons to assert this. Here’s my favorite: We’re made of carbon (among other things); carbon is common and abundant in the Universe; therefore, life could exist elsewhere. If we embrace this idea that life probably exists elsewhere, it follows that you have to recognize the parochial nature of Christianity (my ten questions are primarily directed toward Christians). If Jesus came to Earth to redeem us and to save us from sin and all the rest of it, what relevance does Christianity have for intelligent beings who may be living on the “other side” of Laniakea?
A Necessary Preface. These next two beliefs under discussion are not held by all Christians. However, they are held by 1.2 billion devotees of Christendom’s largest denomination: the Catholic Church. Now, if some “cafeteria Catholics” harbor doubts about these two beliefs or disregard them outright, fine. But that’s a subject for a different essay. Let’s get to it.
4. Black pants, white paper, blue shirt, heavy box, wet floor. To say a box is heavy is to say it isn’t light. To say that a shirt is blue is to say that it isn’t white. That’s what adjectives do. Their specificity explains the state of certain things. Religions have their adjectives, too. “Holy” and “divine” are two common ones that come to mind. To say water is holy is to make an empirical claim about something in the world. This vial contains “holy” water, but that vial contains ordinary water. For those of you who think “holy” is only meant to be taken in a metaphorical way, I would ask you to look at this photo:
Given the time it took to set up the required plumbing, I can assure you that the theists who go up to this spigot are not expecting to receive a cup of metaphor. But never mind a spigot. Let’s just consider a vial of water. When a priest gesticulates in a certain choreographed manner and speaks Latin in front of a vial of water only one thing happens: Molecules in the air are moved and, depending on the forcefulness of breath and gesticulation, the molecules may or may not touch the vial of water. That’s it. Nothing else has happened. Theists like to say that science is about the material world and that religion is about meanings, morals, and values. But if you make a claim about water not being ordinary water, you’re playing on the field of materialism, and when you play on the field of materialism you better have evidence to back up your claim, which takes us to differential diagnosis. What’s differential diagnosis? It’s a spring day and you’re sneezing a lot. You may even have a stuffy nose. Do you have an allergy or do you have a cold? Differential diagnosis will give us the answer. In the case of water, is it hot or is it cold? Is the water salty or not salty? Differential diagnosis will give us the answer. So here’s my question: How, after the fact (after the “blessing” event), is the difference between holy water and ordinary water determined? (P.S. If anyone says that Catholics don’t really believe in “holy” water as a literal thing, take a gander at this.)
5. The essence of my fifth question is similar to what I just said about “holy” water, but my question bears repeating because it’s standard procedure among theists to make a claim about material reality without providing evidence to support the claim. Here’s Britannica’s definition of “Transubstantiation”: “The change by which the substance (though not the appearance) of the bread and wine in the Eucharist becomes Christ’s Real Presence — that is, his body and blood.” Some of you might think all of this is just a metaphor or symbolism. Not so. The folks who attended the Council of Trent (1545–63) decided that Jesus is “really, truly, substantially present” in the “consecrated” wafer (a decree that Pope John XXIII reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council and a belief, by the way, that is also held by Lutherans as well as by believers of some other Christian denominations). How do you substantiate Transubstantiation? Or to be more explicit, how is differential diagnosis employed to determine that Jesus is “really, truly, substantially present” in the wafer and that the wafer is not anything more than a simple admixture of flour and water?
6. Many theists believe that our moral sensibilities are essences or qualities that were given to us by a supernatural source (“God”). There is no evidence to support this claim. There is, however, evidence to support the idea that morality is based on agreed-upon subjective preferences. Broadly understood, morality is a human construct built on four things: reciprocity, altruism, principles of fairness, and empathy. Do you like being burgled? Probably not. Nobody else does either. And so we take this realization — that stealing from people is wrong and that we don’t feel so good when we are the victim of a theft — and then codify our dislike of burglary, accompanied by a requisite punishment, into law. As for altruism, it’s a mechanism that helps ensure survival of the group (remember, humans are social animals). But you want to believe the opposite, that God is “commanding” us to be nice and neighborly. No. Morality is an “emergent property” of evolution, a system, so to speak, in which we evaluate intentions and consequences, and become aware of the effects of behavior on other sentient beings. People come to shared conclusions about subjective experience, and from this conclusion compassion and empathy emerge. As Franz de Waal once put it, “Without empathy, you can’t get human morality. It makes us interested in others. It makes us have an emotional stake in them.” It should also be noted that rudimentary forms of morality can be found with other animals. Think of the number of videos you’ve seen of animals helping other animals. You’ll even find a video of acorn woodpeckers cooperatively protecting a food supply. In light of the many shared behaviors we have with other animals (including the sharing of food) — why do you think morality is something handed to us from On High when there is no evidence to support this belief?
7. Some people say life begins at conception. Others will go further and say “the soul enters at the moment of conception.” If the latter is something you believe, you’ll be interested to know that the plug is pulled on roughly 500,000 ensoulments every year in the United States, which is to say that almost twenty percent of pregnancies end with the fetus aborting itself. Keep in mind the religious aspect of what I’m saying here. Being pregnant means having an “ensouled” blastocyst or fetus in you (or just barely a fetus: Most miscarriages occur during the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy). Here’s my question (a bit of a cheat because my question is actually two interrelated questions): What’s in it for God to go through all the trouble of ensouling blastocysts only to kill them within days or weeks (“God works in mysterious ways” is not an acceptable response), and because this killing goes on daily throughout the world, why is a woman’s decision to have an abortion such a concern for you when it’s obvious that God is the biggest abortionist around?
8. One of the zaniest stories from the Bible is Jonah and the whale. Here’s a helpful meme of the various translations:
The problem here isn’t so much that you believe this story, it’s that you want to believe it. Given all that we know about the behavior and lifestyle of aquatic creatures and that any human would quickly become asphyxiated if an attempt was made to live in the body cavity of any creature, how come your Crap Detector doesn’t turn on when you hear a story like this? Your Crap Detector lights up when someone tells you that Elvis Presley is alive. Your Crap Detector lights up (I hope) when someone tells you that a palm “reading” can give you insights about your future. How about the story of Jonah? If you tell me that Jonah’s adventure was a “miracle,” you’d only be sidestepping my question: Why do you want to believe a story that is patently implausible and not true? Remember, that you do believe this story is not the issue. Instead, it’s the reason why you want to believe this story in the face of all accepted facts about aquatic creatures and human beings that interests me.
9. I’ve been told time and again that God loves me. If that’s the case, why did God create a celestial torture chamber? Let’s say you visit someone’s home and you find a torture chamber in the basement. It follows that the room only exists because the person who built it intends to put it to use. The same logic applies here: God is the creator of everything in the Universe, Hell is part of that everything, and so it logically follows that God created Hell — and it follows that God created Hell because God intended to put it to use and knew, prior to creating it, that it would be put to use. After all, why create a celestial torture chamber and then not put it to use? Where’s the sense in that? Although you just read two questions, here’s the question I’d like answered: How is God not a psychopath for creating Hell? Frankly, it’s difficult not to see “Love me or I’ll set you on fire” as the central message of Christianity.
10. “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That’s a great line from The Usual Suspects. The sentiment has been expressed in a variety of ways over the years and has been traced back to Charles Baudelaire. Fine. But here’s something more compelling to consider. Satan has been referred to as The Great Deceiver (Revelation 13: 13–14 and Revelation 19:20). Seeing that’s the case, how do you know God is not Satan? Think it through. If Satan is The Great Deceiver, it means Satan could be pretending to be God! Right?
And there you have it. Theists, I will now wait for your answers. Good luck!
Barry Lyons is a freelance writer living in New York City. Here’s another essay on an entirely different subject.