Everything’s A God These Days

Question from John:
I’m having difficulty grasping the concept of an “atheist.” Perhaps you can clarify it for me.

The concept of a person who doesn’t have belief in a particular god, or a person who is certain that a particular god doesn’t exist, is quite clear. (For example, a person who doesn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god, or who is convinced that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist.) That’s different, though, from someone who doesn’t believe in ANY god of any sort.

A person might claim that they are an “atheist” because there is no scientifically-acceptable evidence for ANY god. Fair enough, as long as that person is also agnostic. But, is there really no evidence for any sort of god? Most atheists would challenge the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of dinosaurs in spite of the fact that no (non-feathered) dinosaurs exist today, and in spite of the fact that there is no direct evidence of them. (So-called “dinosaur bones” dug out of the earth aren’t bones at all. They’re stones with impressions or forms that resemble bones.)

Wouldn’t a highly technologically-advanced extraterrestrial meet every criterion for a god, as dictionaries define the word “god”? (Like many English words, the term “supernatural” has multiple definitions. Some popular dictionaries define “supernatural” as defying natural law in principle, while others define it as appearing to, or seeming to, defy natural law. Go ahead and do a survey of dictionary definitions for yourself.) If “appearing to defy natural law” is one popular definition for the term “supernatural,” then technologically-advanced beings have “supernatural” powers and meet any and every definition of a polytheistic god.

Modern, technological humans have “supernatural” powers, too, compared to tribal peoples. We can bring the dead back to life, fly through the air faster than the speed of sound, and vaporize a forest with the push of a button. Could Zeus or Thor do much better? Even if our powers don’t seem fully god-like now, they will be in a few generations. Additionally, is there not ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations with technology far superior to our own? We don’t need to see and touch a living dinosaur to accept the reality of their existence. Do we need to make first contact with an extraterrestrial species to accept the reality of their existence, given the data we do have?

Is the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of any sort of god a reasonable justification for being an “atheist.”

Answer by SmartLX:
The more you broaden the definition of a god, the more likely it will include something which exists, because more entities both known and hypothetical fall into the category. Hyper-advanced aliens are one thing, but you talk about counting modern humans as gods, which means you’re taking into account practically any possible use of the word “god”. In a nutshell, atheists do not.

Atheism is literally the absence of theism, which is religious belief in a god figure. You could broaden that too, but belief in humans or belief in aliens doesn’t generally qualify as theism. The ontology of a true “god” is often debated, but enough of its hypothetical qualities are near-universally agreed upon by believers and non-believers alike that they can have a coherent discussion about gods together, and one more or less settled point is that a god does not have a natural origin. As Richard Dawkins wrote, advanced aliens might well appear to be gods, but they wouldn’t BE gods because they would have come about naturally like we did, probably via a process like Darwinian natural selection – unless of course they had a hand in our development, in which case they came about MORE naturally than we did.

To look at this from another angle, consider that if there were no religion, no one would bother to identify as an atheist, any more than the term “abolitionist” persisted in America after slavery was successfully abolished there. Vocal, activist atheism is a reaction to religious faith, and thus concerns itself with the same kinds of gods that people believe in, the gods people worship, and importantly the gods in whose names people act. In other words, theistic gods. Atheists claim that there is no good evidence for the gods which are the subjects of religious faith. This is not redundant or circular because the faithful do not define their gods in terms of atheism. They’ll happily tell you what their gods are like, what they’ve done and what they want from us.

Since you mentioned agnosticism: Most atheists are also agnostic because they do not claim to KNOW there are no gods (as gods are defined above). They will make the positive claim that there’s no available evidence for gods, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Besides, incontrovertible evidence might turn up tomorrow in Guam for all we know.

Incidentally, you completely lost me when you said there’s “ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations”. There’s currently no unambiguous evidence at all, just a lot of probability-based arguments along the lines of the Drake equation and the unsupported claims of a community of UFO enthusiasts.

14 thoughts on “Everything’s A God These Days”

  1. I think confusion lies in the notion that the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are often considered to be mutually exclusive concepts, but they are not (and agnosticism is a relatively recent word). In my own case I look at the available literature, theological and scientific, and come to the conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to postulate the existence of a god or gods (I do not preclude that there may be extraterrestrial or other-universe beings that would be so technologically advanced as to appear to be indistinguishable from gods). So I am an agnostic, i.e., I have no knowledge of god(s). Because I am agnostic I therefore hold no belief in god(s). Therefore I am also atheist. So I usually describe myself as an ‘agnostic atheist’. Indeed, I’ve only ever known one person in my life, someone I’ve known for nearly 40 years, who describes himself as a ‘gnostic atheist’, i.e. he knows with certainty that no god(s) exist – a stereotypical but erroneous view of an atheist. In contrast, of course, it is not at all difficult to meet a ‘gnostic theist’, i.e., someone who claims to know with certainty, and so therefore believes, that a god(s) exist. But I have also met ‘agnostic theists’, who believe that some sort of god(s) exist, regardless of the state of our current evidence, and do not follow any particular creed or school of thought. Some Universalist Unitarians or New Agers seem to fit this mould.

    Definitional problems also arise when you get someone who:
    (i) has no belief in a god(s), i.e., they are atheist, but their atheism results from an epistemological indifference – they are neither agnostic or gnostic, they simply have never thought about it. My wife seems to fit this category. She’s certainly intelligent enough to understand the concepts, but doesn’t care a hoot about the matter. We need an accepted term to describe this view. The nearest one, I suppose, is ‘areligious’.
    (ii) has decided that we have yet to adequately clarify concepts such as god(s) etc and so theological discussion of any type is inherently meaningless. Such people also qualify as atheist, but the term ‘ignostic’ was coined sometime in the 1960s to better define the stance. I would consider myself to have a hint of ignosticism.

    Language is inherently malleable, and the language of theology, unlike science, is not yet operationally precise and might never be. For example, some theologians such as Haught, Copan, Swinburne and Craig readily talk of god as a person, with identifiable personality characteristics, while others talk of god in diametrically opposite terms such as Paul Tillich’s ‘ground of being’ or ‘primal existence’. I don’t think this really matters: so long as the terms being used are well defined beforehand in any paper, debate or discussion.

  2. Some pantheists emphasize their sense of wonder toward the universe, without ascribing an unifying consciousness to it.

    Some satanists claim each person should be their own god, without belief in the fallen angel proper.

    Obviously, I can not put in doubt the existence of the universe or people. So yes, these gods exist.

    However, my atheism does imply a specific definition of what “a god” would be. Basically, I believe that nature predates consciousness, and a god would turn that around.

    1. Adding to Millstone’s observations, it’s interesting to note how different definitions of god are used to isolate or include people into a belief system, including acting to redefine atheism. For example, in reply to Stephen Law’s argument that god is malevolent toward us, William Lane Craig accepted that such a being could certainly be considered the creator in the sense of the Judeo-Christian / Islamic traditions but could not properly be considered a god because such a creator would not be worthy of worship. This obviously redefines theism as it precludes those who consider a creator capable of evil intent – they would be atheist. Similarly, Paul Tillich has stated that, using his definition of god, atheists who have a sense of wonder and awe of the universe could be relabelled as theists.

      BTW, I liked your last sentence, very succinct.

  3. SmartLX
    Your response to my question was extremely well thought out and insightful, and I agree heartily with everything you wrote except for one point. You suggested that classifying modern humans as gods extends the use of the term “god” to the point where practically any possible use of the word is permitted.

    I agree that lumping hyper-technologically-advanced entities and contemporary humans together in the same category probably is problematic because the technological differences between us are so great. Nevertheless, modern humans ARE already gods.

    It’s important to remember that even the most technologically-advanced entities we can conceive of aren’t going to think of themselves as being gods. Even if they had the necessary technological power to create big bang singularities and initiate inflation in them under laboratory conditions (creating universes like our own), they would still consider these powers natural. Such hyper-advanced aliens would only be gods from the perspective of more primitive species.

    If, a generation or so from now, a NASA mission to the moons of Jupiter were to discover extraterrestrial life with technology similar to that of the tribal peoples in the film Avatar, how would those creatures see us? If their own technology was at the primitive stage of flint knapping and bow-making, it’s unlikely that they would be able to draw an analogy between their spears and our nuclear-tipped Sidewinder missiles, or their stone knives and YouTube videos running on our iPhones. The chances are very good that, in their eyes, we would be gods.

    There’s a Star Trek the Next Generation episode (Who Watches the Watchers) in which Picard struggles to convince a primitive people that he and his crew aren’t gods. He eventually has some success, but it isn’t easy. They just couldn’t make the association between their own primitive tools and the magical devices carried by the crew of the Enterprise.

    Divinity is intrinsically relativistic, as is the difference between magic and technology. Labeling humans “gods” seems to be a corruption of, or a diminishment of, the meaning of the word, to you, because you’ve never experienced anyone groveling at your feet in horror and awe. In fact, humans are the only real gods that we have certain knowledge of, though the odds that we are the only ones in the entire universe (or multiverse) are literally astronomical.

  4. “Incidentally, you completely lost me when you said there’s “ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.” There’s currently no unambiguous evidence at all, just a lot of probability-based arguments along the lines of the Drake equation and the unsupported claims of a community of UFO enthusiasts.”

    Just a miscommunication on my part. I didn’t intend to imply that there is any 100% unambiguous, definitive evidence proving that extraterrestrial civilizations exist. By “ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations” I meant “ample evidence in support of” (but not proving definitively) the existence of such civilizations. I don’t believe that we are in disagreement about the odds, though there is a possibility that we don’t interpret the numbers in the same way.

    We don’t know for certain that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, but we don’t know for certain that dinosaurs ever existed, either. Our planet could have been custom manufactured by hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional mice who planted factory-generated dinosaur fossils just to fool us— unlikely though that may be.

    Conservative estimates put the number of galaxies in the known universe at 100 -150 billion, with an average of tens of billions to hundreds of billions of star systems in each galaxy. (Our own galaxy has between 100,000, 000,000 and 200,000, 000,000 stars.) This is only within the known/visible part of the universe, and doesn’t include the innumerable star systems which existed in the past and no longer exist. Nor does it include the possibility of other universes.

    As Neil deGrasse Tyson has repeatedly pointed out, the most common elements in Earth life are essentially the most common (non-inert) elements in the universe. Earth life can thrive in 110 degree C volcanic heat vents and survive in -20 degree C permafrost. In a 2007 experiment, desiccated (but living), tardigrades— virtually indestructible multicellular invertibrates— survived ten days in the vacuum of space with no apparent permanent harm.

    Knowing what we do about the nature of life on Earth, and knowing how many star systems exist (or have existed) in the known universe alone, I’m inclined to think that the existence of Jehova is a more likely possibility than the chance that we are the only intelligent life in all of existence.

  5. “The ontology of a true “god” is often debated, but enough of its hypothetical qualities are near-universally agreed upon by believers and non-believers alike that they can have a coherent discussion about gods together, and one more or less settled point is that a god does not have a natural origin… atheism is a reaction to religious faith, and thus concerns itself with the same kinds of gods that people believe in, the gods people worship, and importantly the gods in whose names people act.”

    These points are very reasonable and well-stated. I can’t argue with your reasoning, though this is a very different paradigm from the one upon which I based my original question. I took established dictionary definitions for the term “god” at face value.

    After reflecting on your response to my question at length, SmartLX, particularly the excerpts posted above, I’d like to change my question. Here it is: Suppose that zoologists were to discover a narwal-like land animal, resembling a horse, whose horn had medicinal properties which healed illness from poisoning and disease, and which had a special affinity for virgin female humans for (presumably, natural and explainable) reasons which have not yet been explained.

    Would it be reasonable to claim that this animal isn’t a unicorn on the basis of the fact that it isn’t intrinsically “magical” or “supernatural,”? If so, a one-horned, horse-like creature with amazing medicinal properties and an odd affinity for women with intact hymens could not be meaningfully thought of, or referred to, as a “unicorn.”

    Something still perplexes me about this idea. Try as I might, I just can’t swallow it. The concepts of “magic” and “the supernatural” are such thoroughly muddled notions. So-called “supernatural” objects must be both natural and supernatural simultaneously. If they weren’t “natural,” our senses wouldn’t be able to detect their presence and they couldn’t affect the physical world. If they can affect the physical world, a scientist could document those effects experimentally. That much is obvious, but what about their being “supernatural”? What makes something “supernatural”?

    Suppose that someone succeeded in duplicating a “supernatural” phenomenon with 100% accuracy using natural means. This perfect duplication wouldn’t be the real thing. Why? Because the “supernatural” is, by definition, not “natural.” Any naturalistic duplication of the phenomenon, no matter how absolutely and utterly perfect, fails to be supernatural by virtue of the fact that it is natural. WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN??!

    When I watch a Harry Potter movie, I don’t see “magic.” I see technology. Saying the right words in the right order while waving a hickory branch in a circle has a physical effect in Harry’s universe. Perfectly-consistent natural law. Cause and effect. To me, that’s technology, but to most people it’s “magic.” Is it “magic” because we can’t do that sort of thing in our universe? No! It’s “magic” because it’s “magic”— by definition!

    Suppose that you were to invent a cylindrical device that caused anything it was pointed at to levitate when verbally-activated using a string of passwords. You drill a hole in a small hickory branch and insert it. Would that be a “magic wand”? Most certainly not! A magic wand, by definition, is an absurd, nonsensical concept that children (or foolish adults) take seriously. Anything that isn’t intrinsically absurd and nonsensical isn’t “magical.” It’s just PRETEND magic.

    So what do you call a hickory stick that, when pointed at an object and activated with the verbal password “Wingardium Leviosa” makes the object levitate? A fake magic wand? A magic wand-like object? A pseudo-magic wand? To me, it’s a magic wand. I don’t care what anyone says. The characteristic that differentiates “magic” and “technology” doesn’t exist— materially— in our universe. It’s a conceptual characteristic, and the conception is a deeply muddled one at that.

    Magic is “that which is intrinsically UNEXPLAINABLE and IMPOSSIBLE by definition. It is something which, by definition, cannot exist, yet, I insist that it exists, all the same. Worse still, I claim that it is real if its intrinsically-impossible existence can be attributed to the deity or deities that I worship. If its intrinsically-impossible existence can be attributed to natural causes, however, that automatically makes it a fake. I deny its reality on the basis of the fact that anything that exists cannot be intrinsically-impossible by definition UNLESS my god caused it, since my god is “MAGICAL.” If it exists, and my god didn’t cause it, it’s fake by virtue of the fact that I can’t attribute its existence to my god. (If I was Shiva, I’d be doing a quadruple face palm right now.)

    Atheists can’t actually disbelieve in gods because gods can exist and almost certainly do. What atheists reject is irrationality and foolishness, not gods. What atheists don’t believe in is muddled thinking.

  6. In short, that was all pretty reasonable, coming as it does from an uncommon perspective. Nice work. I doubt it’ll cause anyone to stop identifying as an atheist, but it’s always worth considering the labels we give ourselves.

    In answer to your unicorn question, if something which looked and behaved like the mythical unicorn were discovered, there’s no way we’d call it anything else. The definition of a unicorn would change to include the real incarnation as well as the fictional. But it wouldn’t be the mythical unicorn any more than the real salamander is truly the fire-elemental lizard of legend. There are too many stories about unicorns for all of them to be fulfilled by one animal, from the misguided ancient Greek zoologists right up to the revamped My Little Pony.

    As Isaac Asimov wrote, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I suppose you could extend that to say that any sufficiently technologically advanced being is indistinguishable from a god. You go further and say it IS a god. Okay, that’s not much of a stretch.

    You might be interested in the concept of the perinormal, which is a word James Randi invented. Phenomena just outside the periphery of human knowledge might be waiting to be discovered, and until we know how they work they would probably look paranormal, i.e. magical. When Randi debunks the paranormal, he faintly hopes to discover the perinormal. That would be worth having to pay up if someone wins his Million Dollar Challenge.

  7. With regard to the famous quote, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” what do we mean when we say that one thing is “indistinguishable” from another?

    Suppose that something is sitting on my kitchen table which appears to be a banana. I examine it closely, touching it and smelling it. I pick it up, remove the peel, break off a piece and eat it. It looks, feels, smells, and tastes exactly like a banana. I’m hungry, so I eat it as my breakfast. Later in the day, when someone asks me what I had for breakfast, how do I respond? Do I say that I ate something that closely resembled a banana? In any language, in any culture, anywhere on our planet– when something is indistinguishable from another thing, it is that thing.

    When something is indistinguishable from a banana, it is a banana. When something is indistinguishable from a hydrogen atom, it is a hydrogen atom. When something is indistinguishable from a human being, it is a human being. As you point out, applying this principle to gods isn’t much of a stretch.

  8. One Final Thought

    Upon reflection, this principle– that one thing which is indistinguishable from another is that thing– explains a lot. It explains, for example, why divinity is intrinsically relativistic. Earlier, it was mentioned that religious magic is something which is inexplicable and impossible by definition, but which exists just the same. Let’s discard the insane, nonsensical portion of this definition. Doing so, we define “magic” to be something which is intrinsically inexplicable.

    Prestidigitation is magic to the audience but not to the performer because the performer can explain how the trick works. What the audience sees is indistinguishable from magic, but the magician can easily distinguish the two. Similarly, a hand phaser and a magic wand are easily distinguishable from the cognitive reference frame of a Starfleet officer, but they are indistinguishable from that of a tribal population. This explains why magic and divinity are intrinsically relativistic.

    It also explains why the beginning of our universe and the origins of life on Earth are natural phenomena from the cognitive reference frame of atheists, but “magical” or “supernatural” from that of theists. Atheists can distinguish between abiogenesis and Genesis because, like the stage magician, they understand how the trick works.

    Regardless of whether or not creationists WANT to understand abiogenesis, they don’t understand it. Individuals raised as creationists who possess a thorough, penetrating understanding of physics, Big Bang theory, organic chemistry, the principle of abiogenesis, evolutionary theory, and genetics will have as difficult a time seeing creation as being intrinsically “supernatural” as David Blaine will have seeing a simple card palm as “magic.” The more capable they are of distinguishing between abiogenesis and Genesis, the more likely they are to end up abandoning their religion. The “magic” starts to evaporate as soon as you understand how a coin palm works.

    Demonstrating the technique of a coin palm to an adult is usually sufficient to break the spell because most people are capable of understanding the physics involved. Scientific understanding of astrophysics and evolutionary theory is a different story. It’s functionally beyond the intellectual capacity of a large portion of the population. Even those who do understand, to a degree, are capable of believing in a “god of the gaps,” provided that there are sufficient gaps in their understanding. Most modern theists believe in this “god of the gaps.” The sophistication of their theology will be a function of their degree of understanding.

    Albert Einstein’s “theology” was so subtle and sophisticated that he is generally considered to have been an atheist. If you consider Albert Einstein’s religious perspective and atheism to be indistinguishable, well, ’nuff said.

  9. John writes: “Regardless of whether or not creationists WANT to understand abiogenesis, they don’t understand it. Individuals raised as creationists who possess a thorough, penetrating understanding of physics, Big Bang theory, organic chemistry, the principle of abiogenesis, evolutionary theory, and genetics will have as difficult a time seeing creation as being intrinsically “supernatural” as David Blaine will have seeing a simple card palm as “magic.” The more capable they are of distinguishing between abiogenesis and Genesis, the more likely they are to end up abandoning their religion. The “magic” starts to evaporate as soon as you understand how a coin palm works”

    That’s me in a nutshell. Very well explained.

  10. “Knowing what we do about the nature of life on Earth, and knowing how many star systems exist (or have existed) in the known universe alone, I’m inclined to think that the existence of Jehova is a more likely possibility than the chance that we are the only intelligent life in all of existence.”

    Doubtful. The universe is not prone to singularity. It is highly unlikely that Earth is the only place that has life, as you say. If it can happen here than it can happen elsewhere, as the saying goes. If it can happen, it can certainly happen multiple times.

    Which is why the existence of just one “Jehova” seems even more far fetched. Aside from the fact that there is no proof for one, and that the existence of one seemingly contradicts multiple laws of the cosmos, the statistical chance that just one of these creatures exists is pretty darn small…

    “We don’t know for certain that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, but we don’t know for certain that dinosaurs ever existed, either. Our planet could have been custom manufactured by hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional mice who planted factory-generated dinosaur fossils just to fool us— unlikely though that may be.”

    That’s just a creation of a god in a different skin…we have a perfectly viable, well tested explanation for dino remains, but we can make up some other unproven and unsubstantiated explanation (mice) for it and say that is also a “possibility”. You can’t ever say, with 100% accuracy, that there are no leprechauns either. No one really thinks they exist, or did exist at one time, but since something that doesn’t exist does not leave any data behind we don’t have any information to analyze. Therefore we cannot ever say for sure that it is not a real thing. Same for dino-creating mice, gods, or any other creation of the human mind…

  11. When I read a posting like Johns, I say to myself, here is another person in denial. Denial in the sense that he is in the primary steps of doubt about not only his god, but religion as well ,and either does not wish to aknowledge it or is trying to deny it to himself by thinking up weird scenarios that make no sense at all. I know, because, been there, done that. and I have seen many others in the same position. It is the beginning, for him of waking to the truth and that is too scary for him, so he day dreams outloud. I personally think and hope that he will eventually become an athiest, When and if he does, the blinders will finally be removed from his eyes and he will awake to the truth and a better reality than he can gain from religion and the belief in a book full of superstition, mythology and out right lies written by human beings two or three thousand years ago.

    1. Larry, you read wrong. I have almost certainly been an atheist as long as you have. I haven’t believed in a god since a couple of years after I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. What I wrote wasn’t a grasping at straws attempt to preserve a deep-seated belief in God. What I wrote was an expression of objective reality.

      What I’m about to say isn’t directed at you personally, and isn’t intended to be hostile or critical. Human beings are generally incapable of engaging with concepts and issues objectively. Our brains project “baggage” onto every scene we look at and every issue or question we engage with. If you really want to understand my post, try to empty your mind of presuppositions first. Look only at what is actually there.

      Consider the dictionary definition of a god (with a small “g”). Greek gods, Egyptian gods, Roman gods, etc. Then consider Arthur C. Clarke’s famous truism, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”– along with the dictionary definition of “indistinguishable.” (I suggest using dictionary definitions as a safe-guard against unconscious subjective interpretation.) To be “indistinguishable” from something is to be identical with it. If the thing that I am holding in my hand right now is indistinguishable from an apple, it is– for all intents and purposes– an apple. Therefore, if technologically advanced extraterrestrials are indistinguishable from gods with a small “g”– from Greek, Roman, or Egyptian gods– then they ARE gods.

      If one considers the matter objectively, gods almost certainly DO exist– not the “infinite and perfect by definition” nonsensical monotheistic “Gods” with a big “G,” but just “gods.” They almost certainly exist, because the universe is so damned big and the odds against life only existing on our planet are astronomical.

      Yeah, I know– you aren’t in the habit of thinking of extraterrestrials as being deities. The language and culture of your society hasn’t framed reality that way. So what? Get over it! The language and culture of your society– the habitual, default mode of perception and cognition in the United States– endorses monotheism by default. Don’t let those morons do your thinking for you. Habitual modes of looking at things, defined by mainstream culture, are not reliably accurate. You’re better off looking at the universe around you in non-typical ways, with fresh eyes.

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