The title of this article, minus the question mark, is the title of an article posted recently (December 1, 2016) on the Huffington Post Blog. Its author is J. H. McKenna, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer on the History of Religious Ideas at the University of California, Irvine. Here is the article’s introductory line:
As far as I can discover from interviews and from books, there are at least 21 reasons smart people find God unconvincing. Here are the 21 reasons, explained.
This multi-part article here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life is my response to Dr. McKenna’s 21 collected reasons, from the perspective of a perhaps moderately smart theist of the Swedenborgian Christian variety.
The “About” page at Dr. McKenna’s website, “Upon Religion,” ends with these words:
Dr. McKenna often views religious ideas through the lens of benign humor.
Fascinating! As it turns out, I often view atheist ideas through the lens of benign humor! I’m sure Dr. McKenna won’t mind.
Speaking of which, before getting to my point-by-point response to Dr. McKenna’s article let’s take a look at that title.
Argumentum ad idiotam
Way back in the dark ages (meaning the early 1990s, before the Internet broke out of academia and became mainstream), when I was even more foolish than I am today, I haplessly wandered into a Fidonet computer network “Echo” (public discussion forum) called “Holysmoke.” Put simply, Holysmoke was the Echo where moderators of other Fidonet Echoes sent overly zealous Christian proselytizers to get eaten alive by a pack of atheist piranhas. (And no, I hadn’t been proselytizing. The name of the Echo just sounded interesting!)
In one of my earlier messages there (which, alas, is apparently among the “missing links” in the online Holysmoke archives), I rather foolishly started one of my arguments with the words, “If you are smart, . . . .”
As you might imagine, the aforementioned pack of atheist piranhas swarmed all over that one!
They accused me of engaging in the logical fallacy of argumentum ad idiotam. (Okay, okay, that may not be the exact name of the logical fallacy.) To say that only smart people believed a certain thing, they assured me, was a completely baseless, illogical, and in fact completely idiotic and downright ******* stupid argument to make, and I was a complete moron to say such a ridiculous and insulting thing!
Imagine my surprise, then, over twenty years later, to find Dr. McKenna’s atheist apologia headlined: “God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks”!
Now, Dr. McKenna does seem to be a much nicer person than the denizens of that old HolySmoke Fidonet Echo. Yet he’s tangled in the same old argument about who knows better: Smart Folks or Stupid Folks. And of course, the people who agree with me (whoever I happen to be) are the Smart Folks!
And no, I won’t let Dr. McKenna hide behind “scholarly objectivity” and claim that he’s just reporting what other people think. As the old newspaper maxim goes, “You can say whatever you want. Just put it between quotes.”
Educated elites don’t get to decide what’s true
It doesn’t help that a 2013 academic study titled “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations,” by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall, generally supported the idea that higher levels of intelligence are associated with lower levels of religiosity. But as pointed out in a Washington Post article responding to the study, “Are atheists smarter than believers? Not exactly,” it’s best not to jump to hasty conclusions.
The debate about that study is extensive. But here’s the bottom line for our purposes today: Whether something is true or not isn’t dependent upon how many smart people believe it is true. Truth is not a majority-rules process, still less a process in which the educated elites get to decide among themselves what the rest of us must believe if we’re smart. Throughout history there have been many Very Smart Folks who have believed some Very Stupid Things.
The opening abstract of the aforementioned study ends with this sentence:
Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.
Now that is a very insightful observation!
In addition to the reasons given in the study itself, I would add this one: Highly educated and intelligent people are commonly found in academia and in the upper echelons of society. There, they can feel a sense of economic and personal security that is not enjoyed by the mass of ordinary working people who do not have their high level of education and privilege.
It’s easy not to feel any need for God when you’re in a tenured position in academia, or in a highly paid upper-level position in a booming tech or biomedical company.
But for the people down in the trenches, life is fragile and uncertain. One serious mistake, one accident, one injury could cost them their job and their livelihood—and they know it. These people live one missed paycheck or one bad break away from being chucked out onto the street. For these folks, the need for a higher power to provide a deeper sense of security is very real.
Beyond that, whether intelligent people have less need for religious beliefs and practices is irrelevant to the existence or non-existence of God. Our need for God, or lack thereof, does not determine whether or not God exists. The truth, whatever it may be, is independent of our particular perspective or position in society.
Now that we’ve dealt with Dr. McKenna’s title, let’s dig into his twenty-one points.
1. God as an old white man in the sky is unconvincing
Under this heading, Dr. McKenna writes:
Depictions of God as a humanoid (this is called ‘anthropo-morphism’ = in human form) have been considered incredible since ancient times. Rendering God as a male humanoid is not credible to skeptics. Does this male God have genitals, a deep voice, facial hair? Also, it’s curious that God usually resembles whoever it is that’s depicting God—and that’s men! Men made God in their own image and likeness.
For Jews and Christians, the idea that God is in some sense human is based especially on this passage in the very first chapter of the Hebrew Bible:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . .”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.
The historical and social reality that God is pictured by various believers as being their own type of human being doesn’t mean that God actually looks like an old bearded white man (in the case of common European depictions of God). Given that there are many different races, types, and sizes of humans in the world, all of them created “in the image and likeness of God,” it is sensible to believe that God encompasses the various qualities of, and is the origin of, all of those different types of human beings, rather than looking exclusively like any one of them.
And yes, this would mean God is the origin of European male humans’ genitals, deep voices, and facial hair, not to mention being the origin of European female humans’ genitals, higher voices, and non-bearded faces—and of the sex-linked traits of people of every other race. Does Dr. McKenna have a problem with God being the origin of human sexuality? Is Dr. McKenna just as uncomfortable with sex as the Christian conservatives whose religious ideas he views with benign humor?
If God made humanity in God’s own image, then God must encompass all human qualities, of all different types of humans. However, as Voltaire said, since God created us in God’s image, it is only natural that we humans will return the favor, and picture God in our own particular image—whatever that image might be.
As for the more general issue of an anthropomorphic God, we’ll save that for Dr. McKenna’s second point:
2. God as immaterial and yet with biological functions is unconvincing
It’s self-contradictory to say God is ‘immaterial’ and in the same breath say God sees, hears, speaks, and feels—all of which are functions of biological, material organisms. What does God ‘see’ with if not a material eye? ‘Hear’ with if not a material ear? ‘Speak’ with without a material mouth? These descriptions of God are self-contradictory and nonsensical.
These things are self-contradictory and nonsensical only if our conception of reality is limited to physical, material reality.
According to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772)—and Swedenborg is far from unique in thinking this way—there are three distinct general levels of reality, in descending order:
- Divine reality, meaning God
- Spiritual reality, encompassing the spiritual world and the human psyche
- Material reality, or the physical universe and everything in it, including the human body
Where Swedenborg departs from many thinkers is in saying that each of these levels of reality is substantial and organic, in the sense of being made of real substance and also having a living, functioning, and complex form without which it could not be real.
According to Swedenborg, the spiritual world, though completely non-physical, is every bit as real, solid, and complex as is the physical world. In particular, he says that we have a spiritual body (compare 1 Corinthians 15:44) that has every part, every organ, and every detail that our physical body does—so much so that after we leave our physical body behind and enter the spiritual world, we will hardly be able to tell the difference. (And yes, Dr. McKenna, this does include what’s between our legs.) And yet that body is not made of physical matter, but of spiritual substance.
And God, Swedenborg says, exists on a still higher level of reality: the divine level of reality. At that level (which is infinite, and therefore beyond our ability to fully grasp), God also has real substance and real “organic” form. In fact, God has an infinitely complex form, which encompasses, and is the source of, all of the forms and functions that we enjoy as human beings, including sight, hearing, speaking, and feeling.
In short, God does not see with material eyes, but with divine eyes. God does not hear with material ears, but with divine ears. God does not speak with a material mouth, but with a divine mouth. And so on with the other senses and abilities. And unlike our limited physical senses here on earth, and even our not quite as limited spiritual senses when we move on to the spiritual world, God’s divine senses, being infinite and above all the other levels of reality, are capable of sensing everything in the created universe.
Further, God is human not so much because God is physically shaped like a human being, but because God has all the essential qualities of human beings, including love, wisdom, intelligence, passion, perception, humor, and all of the other qualities that make us human rather than simply being a higher order of animal.
We’ll say more about how God senses everything in the created universe in Part 2 when we take up Dr. McKenna’s third point: “God as all-knowing is unconvincing.”