It won’t break your heart to hear that, despite the hype at this time of year, that jolly old white guy ‘Santa’ is in fact a fictional character. Many people however, believe that the Judaeo-Christian God can also be placed in an area labelled ‘non-reality’. I argue that the usual attempts to infer a relationship between the two, display cracked thinking.
There is debate in philosophical circles over the sense in which fictional characters can be said to ‘exist’ – however, for the purposes of most of this essay, I’ll take it that Santa does not exist. But for the ‘neo’-atheists to compare God to Santa Claus only displays their own childishness rather than philosophical acuity. It seems clear that wishful thinking; of which the ‘bright’ (Dawkins’ designator of choice) brigade are here guilty; and insightful thinking share a verb, but little else.
Three years back, Richard Dawkins wrote a witty piece in the Washington Post where he implored the western world to give up taking Yahweh seriously in the same way that we’ve given up Thor, that once-rather-popular Scandinavian god of thunder.
“While technically agnostic about all those ancient gods, and about fairies and leprechauns too (you can’t disprove them either), in practice we don’t believe in any of them, and we feel no onus to explain why”
For Dawkins it is clear that in systematizing the universe, Yahweh is best placed into the same category as a leprechaun. Yet Yahweh, who has been part of the dominant world view of the western world for the previous 2000 years; and in the thinking of various other parts of the world for much of that; is neither non-existent nor twee.
So what is special about the God of the monotheist compared to the merry Santa of the mislead secular child? Clearly, God is believed in by a number of people older than 8 years; you may wish to take myself and the Pope as suitable instances. A key factor for me however, aside from the fact that there many intelligent people who take God to exist (pick up Philosopher’s Who Believe, for example) is the weight of positive evidence for Yahweh that we do not have for Santa or any other ancient god. Evidence such as the argument from morality, from teleology in nature, from cosmology, and most important of all, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in history.
I want to focus, however, on the robust ‘big-scale’ explanatory role that Christian theism can play, an advantage that individual gods in polytheistic systems cannot claim and which the faith of the neo-atheists has no hope of playing. Theism provides a much better explanation than atheistic materialism, for example, of the origin of the universe. This idea bears rephrasing – theists claim that God made the universe; God made nature itself. For the naturalist to say “aha, shame on you, ignorant Christians; we know how thunder works, so good bye to Thor and to your god!” completely misses the point and the grandeur of the God concept. Note that this isn’t a ‘god of the soon-to-be-filled gaps’ argument. Discovering natural mechanisms within the natural universe; no matter how wonderful or how many; can no more get rid of God than discovering linguistic structures in a book or blog post can get rid of the author.
The epistemological minimalism encapsulated in the oft-intoned “Occam’s Razor” does not sit well with the way modern science works. In hypothesis-testing, a concept’s explanatory power; not just its simplicity; is important. Particularly suspect is whether the Razor ought to be ruthlessly applied in the case of the universe itself – is it really more satisfactory to have nature itself as a brute fact (or indeed, billions of other universes), rather than a single person as its source? In the light of our own experience of agent causation and creativity, I suggest the personal option comes with at least some initial plausibility.
And there is modern cosmology; and philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe, including those against the existence of actual infinities, which strongly challenge the eternity of matter/energy and hence count against any assumption which takes the universe as brute fact. Yet regardless of, for instance, whether all of the premises of the Kalam argument can be sufficiently defended to convince the already convinced sceptic, there are prima facie considerations in favour of God’s existence that Santa or Thor do not share; minor mythological figures are simply not ambitious enough. Ultimately, whether or not you choose to believe in the existence of the man in the red suit at the north pole, the present question of a personal, non-physical creator of the universe who interacts with it to the point of incarnation, remains important and open; ready for unwrapping and investigation.