Tuesday, December 07, 2004

God in the Parables

On The West Wing last night, a Catholic priest tells the President a rather old parable about how God helps people. In this parable, a guy is sitting in his house when he hears an evacuation order over the radio due to an imminent flood. But, instead of evacuating, this guy says to himself, "I'm a Christian. I pray. God will save me."

(You can't imagine how much people doing crap like this aggravates those of us who work in emergency management).

Then, the water floods the bottom floor of his house and the guy goes up to the 2nd floor. A dude in a boat comes by and tells they guy to get in. The guy yells, "I'm a Christian. I pray. God will save me."

Then, as the waters are rising and the guy is stranded on his roof, a helicopter flies overhead and the pilot calls out for the guy to grab the rope being lowered to him. The guy yells back, "I'm a Christian. I pray. God will save me."

So, the guy dies. He gets to the gates of Heaven and demands that St. Peter take him to see God. Peter takes him there. The guy says to God, "I'm a Christian. I prayed. Why didn't you save me?"

God replies, "I sent you a warning over the radio, a boat, and a helicopter. What are you doing here?"

Now, this parable is meant to convey to the listener, presumably a Christian, that you have to look for God's work and influence in the mundane and not wait for God to do something dramatic. But that's not what this parable really demonstrates.

It demonstrates that it doesn't make any difference if God exists or not. Nothing in the meat of the parable, the part involving the flood, requires supernatural intervention at all. Whether God did it or not, there is no practical difference, even though the parable supposedly shows something God is directly influencing.

There's a word for something that has absolutely no affect on reality: nonexistence. Everything that exists can be defined by its affect on other things. But here, we see that God's direct intervention in a situation is absolutely indistinguishable from things that one would expect to happen if God had not acted. Humans send out warnings over the radio before floods. Humans use boats to get around during a flood. Humans send helicopters to rescue stranded flood victims. Why, exactly, do we need God to explain these events, which seem to be easily explicable by human agents and action?

We don't. By claiming that God is the explanation for things that have a much simpler, mundane explanation, Christians make the case for God's nonexistence themselves. If an event can be explained equally well by a mundane explanation or an extraordinary explanation, by default we must believe the mundane explanation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In this case, there is no evidence whatsoever that God had anything to do with what happened.

So, we can explain the warning, boat, and helicopter either by positing an immanent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, eternal uncreated creator of the universe who wrote the Bible, incarnated as a Roman-era Jew, and allowed himself to be crucified for the sins of mankind, and lives in some other dimension called 'Heaven,' OR by positing that the National Weather Service sent the warning, the dude is another flood victim who lives nearby and owns a boat, and the helicopter was sent by local emergency management officials to do search and rescue of idiots who sat in their house while it filled with water... which is more likely? Clearly there is no need to go to the lengths of positing an uncreated creator to get to a reasonable explanation.

The fact that extraordinary claims must be discarded in favor of mundane claims when extraordinary proof is not offered is obvious in most cases, but has become obscured when dealing with the Christian God by centuries of Christian dogma and apologetics. But think of this: If a guy shows up at your door stinking of alcohol and claiming to have been abducted by aliens, do you believe the mundane explanation that the guy was drunk and hallucinating, or the extraordinary claim that he really was kidnapped? Or, if a guy accosts you on the street claiming to be the reincarnation of, say, Zoroaster, do you believe the mundane explanation that the guy is messing with you or mentally ill, or do you accept the extraordinary explanation that he is really Zoroaster? Or, if a guy tells you he has superpowers and can fly, but just not right now, do you believe the mundane explanation that he is lying, or do you believe the extraordinary explanation that the guy really can fly at other times?

(If you chose the extraordinary explanation in any of the above examples, hit yourself in the head with a tack hammer.* If you don't die, hop a flight to LA, and go down the Church of Scientology. They've got some swamp land I'm pretty sure you'll be interested in).

So why would anyone see an immanent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being as the logical explanation for a warning, a boat, and a helicopter? Because that person has made up his or her mind without regard to reason, logic, or facts before those events ever happened. Only if you have decided a priori that everything (except for people's choices, because of so-called "free will" and, of course, Evil) is God's work would you see anything more than common events here.

But the fact is, I do not see how a being whose existence or nonexistence makes no difference, as Christians themselves admit through this parable, can be said to exist. Theists will claim that God's actions in this case are subtle or mysterious, but even things done subtly or mysteriously can, at least in theory, be brought to light so that their affects can be seen. God's actions in this parable are neither subtle nor mysterious: They are utterly inconsequential.

And therefore, God's existence or lack thereof is utterly inconsequential as well. And there is a consequence to the existence of everything that exists, if only gravity or the pattern created in matter by the magnetic coding of information on a hard drive (yes, ideas and information physically exist, even if only through patterns in matter and neurons). If a being's existence is inconsequential, therefore, we can safely say that being does not exist.

(By the same token, this parable can also be taken to mean, "God helps those who help themselves," which is just another way of saying God's actions and existence are inconsequential so you better do it yourself).

*don't hit yourself in the head with a tack hammer. It was a joke. That would be dangerous. Get someone else to do it.


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