It's pleasant, once in a while, to exit the parched lands of the New Atheism, where village atheists congregate around every town square and pelt strangers with rotten tomatoes, and stumble on an atheist who writes with dignity, avoids useless insults, and argues rationally. What a relief to say, "Your argument is reasonable, but sorry, it's wrong."
That is what I am happy to say to Dr. Jaco Gericke.
Gericke's argument is the first chapter in John Loftus' ambitious The End of Christianity I will review here. It's a good chapter to start with, because it deals with notions of God in the Bible, and attempts to cut Christianity down from the roots.
The title of the chapter, "Can God exist if Yahweh doesn't?", gives a good idea of where Gericke is heading. What the Old Testament says about Yahweh is incoherent and incredible, he argues. Since more nuanced and sophisticated ideas about God depend historically on this primitive, Zeus-like deity with arms, legs, even sexual organs, then Christian philosophy is (though he doesn't use this metaphor) a house built on sand.
I'm not an Old Testament scholar, and will leave most of Gericke's points about the OT to someone more qualified in that field. After (a) explaining Gericke's argument in more detail, I plan to critique it on two grounds on which I feel more comfortable: (b) the logic of the argument, and (c) the empirical data of comparative religion. Gericke anticipates the first, but does not, in my opinion, respond to it adequately. The second objection I think not only devastates his argument, but turns it on its head, and renders it an argument FOR, rather than against theism. The facts I will bring up at this point, Gericke shows no sign of anticipating.
(A) "Yahweh is a myth, so God is unreal."
Dr. Gericke explains his procedure in this chapter with admirable clarity:
"You can demonstrate belief in Zeus to be absurd by pointing out the ridiculously superstitious nature of the representations of the entity in question (i.e., his human appearance, his less than scientifically informed mind, and his nonexistent divine world), thus exposing his artificial origins. Well, the same can be done with 'God,' aka Yahweh." (134)
This is, indeed, the argument one finds in the rest of the chapter, and Gericke offers quite a bit of OT evidence to back it up.
Where did "God" come from? Throughout the chapter, Gericke assumes that a clear, transcendent Creator "God" evolved from a localized, mythological "Yahweh." We begin with a "god," then spin him into "God:"
"The Christian philosophical reinterpretation of this is nothing more than a strategy of evasion by people who cannot admit to themselves that they, too, no longer find it possible to believe in 'God' (aka Yahweh) any more than they believe in Zeus. The Greek philosophers did the same thing with the Greek gods when they began to find their representations too crude. Believers will continue doing so for the foreseeable future." (140)
His allegedly bossy qualities are borrowed, originally, from nearby bossy monarchs, of whom there were plenty in the Middle East:
"The fact that Yahweh's own alleged needs seem suspiciously similar to the historically and culturally conditioned needs of 'the powers-that-be' known to his worshippers is best accounted for by viewing Yahweh's mind as represented in the particular texts as the product of humans projecting the power-drunk autocrats familiar to them onto an imaginary cosmic monarch." (142)
"The universe is not a hierarchy where at the top of the pecking order sits a king with the psychological profile of a narcissistic, bipolar ancient Near Eastern ruler running the whole show." (143)
This was, in fact, a relatively recent development:
"Yahwism and its taboos are latecomers in the history of religions." (143)
"The oldest evidence of Yahwism dates faith in this god back no more than 3000-3500 years." (145)
It is, in fact, the allegedly recent origin of Yahweh in the history of religion that makes belief in him incredible:
"Yet we are now told to believe in what is supposed to be the 'real God' even though his Iron Age (1200-500 BC) character and supernatural setup appeared on the scene late in the history of religion at some point during the second half of the second millennium BCE -- and just happens to eternally resemble the culture of this era. I'm sorry, but this is all very hard to swallow. It is no more believable than claiming any other god with an identifiable history of origin and reconstruction in myth just happens to be the ultimate reality. Does the word 'absurd' still have any meaning in religious circles today?"
"Godism" is, according to Gericke, a "latecomer in the history of religions" AND a "local affair." Gericke gives four examples of peoples of whom Yahweh supposedly knew nothing about: Native Americans, Khoi-San of South Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Eskimos. "All Yahweh's supposedly supernatural concerns and attributes of manifestation appear totally dependent on the region in which he was worshipped." (148)
I don't think Gericke is quite right about Yahweh. I think he could profit from reading Rodney Stark's Discovery of God, which draws a sharp contrast between ancient Middle Eastern "temple" religions and the theism of Israel.
But rather than getting lost in those waterways, I'd like to concentrate on two simple points, one logical, the other empirical, which I think not only defeat, but actually reverse, this argument, and turns it into an argument FOR God.
(B) Does it follow?
St. Anselm grew up in the mountain town of Aosta in northern Italy, surrounded by Alps that soar higher than 10,000 feet on three sides. As a boy, he assumed that heaven was at the top of those peaks. He once dreamed that God invited him climb the mountains to the court of heaven. Having arrived, he found everyone in court was out harvesting the grain. The only ones left were God and his steward, who offered him some pure white bread.
Anselm became one of the most sophisticated philosophers of the Middle Ages. He would later define God, not as an old man with a beard living in a courtyard up in the Alps, but as the being of whom there was no greater.
One can see change, here, and also continuity. Anselm's childish vision of God could be called "mythological" or even "wrong," yet it encapsulated something about God that he continued to find true, as one of the leading philosophers of his day, and as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The question is, if a concept of God is faulty, does that mean God does not exist? And why, if Anselm's childish vision was primitive, cute, or laughable, did Anselm, having grown up, not realize his foolishness, and convert to atheism?
C. S. Lewis makes the same point hypothetically. A Galilean peasant might hold to an anthropomorphic understanding of God or the afterlife. He might then go to Alexandria, get a philosophical education, and realize that "the Father had no right hand and did not sit on a throne." But would he think that by gaining more sophisticated images about God, the essentials of his core belief had changed? Only if, aside from being a peasant, he was also a fool -- "two very different things."
I think Gericke overstates the childish element in Old Testament theology. But even if he is right about how Yahweh was seen or understood by some of its writers, it would in no way follow either that the essence of their faith was wrong, or that, having learned better theology, they would fail to rightly recognize continuity between childish and mature visions. It might even be that God gave Anselm that vision -- as his biographer, Eadmer, seemed to believe -- and that he likewise revealed himself in a step-by-step manner to the "children" of Israel.
Gericke quotes David Clines:
"God in the Pentateuch is not a 'person;' he is a character in a book. And there are no people in books, no real people, only fictions; for books are made, not procreated."
This is a peculiar claim, since for me, both Clines and Gericke are also "characters in a book." I assume they are more than that. I also assume they are more than their limited representations of themselves, in this one chapter. It is hard to see why the same can't be true of God: our understanding of Him, as even of ourselves, must by definition be limited.
Some of Gericke's arguments in support of this point seem reasonable enough, others extremely silly:
"Yahweh spoke the world into being via a particular dialect of classical Hebrew that evolved among humans, stayed around only for a short time in a local bit of history, and then vanished everywhere except for heaven. But think about it . . . When God says 'Let there be light!' in classical Hebrew, there is nobody for whom what God uters is language rather than just a wordless shout. There is no community of speakers . . . "
Here we descend, for a moment, into village atheist territory. Does Gerricke seriously think the fact that God is quoted as speaking in Hebrew, in a Hebrew book, should somehow trouble believers?
The more we understand the nature of the universe -- the exquisitely complex information built into both the laws of physics and the structure of life, which is now known to contain true language, in the genetic code -- the more profound these initial words have come to seem. The universe is spoken into being, we now know that scientifically, beyond all doubt, and to increasing amazement.
I have never met a Christian who was troubled by this point, not because we are all deluded fools, but because we recognize that God is humble and wise enough to speak to people in their own language.
But the biggest problem with Gericke's thesis has to do with the history of world religions, which I think he has badly misunderstood.
(C) Which Came First -- Yahweh or God?
To repeat, Gericke assumes that a transcendent Creator "God" evolved from a localized, mythological "Yahweh." Christians engage in "evasion" because they simply can't believe in Yahweh, anymore than Greek philosophers could believe in old stories about Zeus. Yahweh's bad character derives from "power-drunk autocrats," projected onto an "imaginaray cosmic monarch," a (here Garicke waxes almost Dawkinsian) "narcissistic, bipolar ancient Near Eastern ruler." (143)
Gericke's argument depends on "Yahwism" being a "latecomer in the history of religions." Indeed, he marks its origin at some 3000-3500 years ago.
Furthermore, this faith is a local affair: Yahweh knew nothing of Native Americans, Khoi-San of South Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Eskimos.
I love these examples. They are so clear, and SO wrong.
What if, rather than casting doubt on Gericke's logic, we examine his premises? What if, however some concepts of Yahweh may have grown confused (as happened, even to the young Anselm), there is widespread awareness on every inhabited continent of one, true God, matching the central theology of Israel, of Jesus, Paul, Augustine, and Pascal?
St. Paul anticipated that. He came to Athens and quoted Greek philosophers about God: "As some of your own poets have said, 'In Him we live and move and have our being' . . . 'We also are his offspring.'"
St. Augustine also anticipated that. He predicted, in City of God (8.9), that awareness of the true God would be found north, south, east and west, revealed (chapter 12) by God.
Secular assumptions notwithstanding, such a God has, in fact, been found in all these directions, including among tribes whose customs don't appear to have changed much for tens of thousands of years.
And including many of the very tribes Gericke mentions.
Sometimes people and tribes relapse, and God sinks again into the pantheon, then reemerges. The Bible itself predicts this. Why are Christians supposed to be surprised by it?
I've written on this extensively: in True Son of Heaven, Jesus and the Religions of Man, and The Truth Behind the New Atheism. I also have a blog here on the subject. There is no need to give all the quotes again.
But it is interesting that God can be found in those very places where Gericke tells us were outside of Yahweh's knowledge:
(1) The Australian aborigines. Admittedly, theism was not "pure" in Australia -- the high God might be given a wife and family, for instance. Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, an atheist who did not seem friendly to the idea, nevertheless admitted that "God" in a surprisingly familiar form could be found all over Australia:
"The characteristics of this personage are fundamentally the same everywhere. It is an immortal and indeed an eternal being, since it is derived from no other . . . He is spoken of as a sort of creator . . . father of men . . . made the animals and the trees, and all the arts of life . . . benefactor of humanity . . . He communicates . . . directly or through intermediates . . . guardian of tribal morality . . . judge after death . . . They feel his presence everywhere . . . The authority each of these high gods has is not restricted to a single tribe but is recognized as well by a number of neighboring tribes . . . " (Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 289-292)
Does that sound at all familiar to anyone?
Remember, the Australian aborigines were tribal. They didn't have kings. And their customs likely predated the alleged origin of Yahweh by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years.
And that pulls the plug on Gericke's whole theory, and makes one wonder: if a local and culturally-limited origin of God makes belief in him implausible, would not a widespread and culturally-transcendent belief in a recognizably consistent God, make faith in Him more plausible? Or does this argument only work one way?
And it's not just the Aussies.
(2) African tribes, from whence all humanity comes, also seem to have usually been aware of a Supreme God whose characteristics exactly match those in Australia! John Mbiti shows this in detail in African Religions and Philosophy, as do many local sources. As I recall, one sources describes indigenous theism among the Bush Men (San) of southern Africa, that Gericke mentions.
(3) As Paul Radin admits in Monotheism Among Primitive Peoples that a similiar theism ("the Great Spirit") was common among North American tribes. He ascribes this belief to tribal intellectuals, it is true. Whether he is right about that or not, Gericke's own example shows again that God preceded whatever anthropomorphisms may have accrued to knowledge of God in Israel or elsewhere.
(4) Eskimos also often had a similar belief, as Wilhelm Schmidt pointed out.
None of these tribes had kings. All have lived in their homeland for thousands, in some cases tens of thousands, of years, apparently aware of God all that time.
It seems, then, that far from undermining God, Gericke's argument gives us a remarkable reason to believe in Him. After all, He is not limitted to any one culture, time, or socio-economic system. Most of humanity, over most of its life, seems to have been aware of Him, even if (as the Bible specifically warns) we sometimes push Him to the back of our minds, or create idols and ideologies unworthy of His reality, that we all seem to feel.
Atheists argue that if God is limitted by culture, He is probably unreal. Richard Dawkins makes a similar argument in God Delusion, as does Durkheim in another part of Elementary Forms.
So what if God is NOT limited by culture? What if He has, as Paul and Augustine anticipated, revealed Himself to much of humanity? What if the "evolution of religions" model is bunk from start to finish?
Wouldn't that mean God probably is real?
In short, it seems that Yahweh has outwitted His critics, again.