Talk 2: ‘Gods of the No Testament’
In this talk, Andy says more about why people have left the church, having discarded their former beliefs. In his view, though, they don’t have a reason to be atheists. He says that many of their former beliefs weren’t actually right in the first place. People leaving Christianity have done so because they can no longer believe in versions of God, or of Jesus, that they were being taught. But, he claims, these versions of God and of Jesus weren’t part of Christianity anyway.
In this talk he focuses on these wrong ideas about God, which he calls the ‘somebody-told-you-so’ God. In the next talk he deals with wrong ideas about Jesus, which rather controversially he calls the ‘Bible-tells-me-so’ Jesus.
So what are these wrong ideas about God that people have been taught by their parents, their Sunday-school teachers, or even their pastors — these gods that don’t exist? Andy works his way through six:
- the bodyguard God — a God who ensures that good things happen to good people. Andy’s argument is that many people have abandoned belief in God because their experience of pain and suffering contradicts this concept of God. (Andy will deal with this area in more detail in a whole talk later in the series.) But, he argues, the idea that bad things never happen to good people isn’t part of the original claims of Christianity; it can’t have been, because Christianity itself started with the crucifixion of a good man, and with the persecution of his early followers. So we can’t use bad things happening to good people as an argument against God.
As far as it goes this is a valid point.
- the on-demand God — a God who responds to fair requests the way we would. This is the expectation that God would do for us, at the very least, what we would do for someone else. Some people have decided there is no God because they didn’t receive answers to their prayers. But, Andy claims, this idea too isn’t part of Christianity, so again, you can’t use God not responding the way you expect as an argument against his existence.
While the argument here is valid if it’s true that Christianity doesn’t make this claim about God, Andy fails to mention that there are parts of the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus, that do appear to give exactly the impression that we can expect God to give us what we ask for.
- the boyfriend God — a God whose presence is always felt. Andy says that some people have decided there is no God because they have lost the sense of the presence of God that they used to experience. But, he says, the idea that God’s presence should always be felt is just an idea that somebody told them, not part of Christianity.
Again, this is a valid point.
- the guilt God — a God who controls us through guilt and fear. This is the God who says, ‘No you can’t’ to everything, the God who supposedly loves us but who doesn’t really like us. As Andy probably rightly says, of all the gods that don’t exist, this is the hardest one to give up believing in if you were taught about him by your parents or your pastor. But you should.
This is an important point for his Christian audience to hear, although Andy fails to say how he deals with large parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where God is presented exactly like this.
- the anti-science God — a God who requires us to ignore the undeniable. People leave religion because the church asks them to close their eyes to undeniable science; it tells them to stop thinking and just believe. But thinking people can’t do this. Andy is bold enough to concede — in fact strongly state — that the ‘Sunday School God’ cannot be reconciled with science. But it’s not true that science and theology have to conflict. Rather, he says, if you find a conflict between science and your theology, it’s your theology that’s wrong.
This argument certainly needs to be heard by Christians. But the unanswered question at this stage in the series is what sort of God is left over once you do eliminate the beliefs that are disproved by science.
- the gap God — a God who is the convenient explanation for everything we can’t explain. Believing in this God, Andy says, ultimately undermines faith, because the list of things we can’t explain is getting smaller. If your faith in God is based on the unexplainable, it’s going to crumble when things get explained. Unexplainable is not evidence for God, it is evidence of our ignorance. Here, Andy addresses the Christians in his audience and says the church shouldn’t be afraid of everything being explained, because that does not remove the necessity for someone having created it. Christianity doesn’t rely on there being mystery. He goes as far as to say that the fact that things are explainable, predictable, is evidence for a creator who created but then stopped.
Andy credits Christians with the birth of science due to their belief that God had stopped creating, meaning that the universe should follow fixed laws, in contrast to belief in a pantheon of gods who were continually meddling with the world. But this ignores Greek philosophy in which there was an underlying order to the world that can be studied, despite the gods, and it ignores science in other ancient cultures which had other religious beliefs. It also fails to explain why ancient Jewish culture, which shares the same creation story, didn’t produce science, or why Christianity didn't produce science for many centuries.
That aside, there’s much to commend Andy’s approach here: his realisation that the church has mostly got it wrong in its approach to science is an important message that Christians need to hear. But his side argument that the universe points to a creator is lacking substance. He doesn’t deal with any detail. What sort of God does the Big Bang point to? What sort of God does natural selection point to? There are many unaddressed questions here.
I’m not sure how relevant this talk is to an atheist audience; although on paper his target audience for this series are those who have left the church, it actually seems to be his Christian audience that he is really addressing here, urging them to rethink their faith and discard any childhood ideas about God that don’t fit with the real world. And for this, even if not for everything he’s said, he has my vote so far. It remains to be seen how much of the Christian God can be left after discarding these ideas.
The next talk in the series takes the same approach even further, dealing with Jesus and the Bible in ways that get him into trouble with many other Christian leaders.