What sort of argument could be made for wide, positive atheism, or the view that no gods or divine beings exist?
Here’s one. Here’s my list of 500 dead gods from a wide range of cultures and periods, revisited:
Aa, Aah, Abil Addu, Addu, Adeona, Adjassou-Linguetor, Adjinakou, Adya Houn'tò, Agassou, Agé, Agwé, Ahijah, Ahti, Aizen Myō-ō, Ajisukitakahikone, Ak Ana, Aken , Aker , Äkräs, Aku, Allatu, Altjira, Amano-Iwato, Ame-no-Koyane, Am-heh, Amihan, Amon-Re, Amun, Amurru, Anapel, Anath, Andjety, Anhur, Anit, Anu, Anubis, Anzambe, Apsu, Arianrod, Ash , Ashtoreth, Assur, Astarte, Aten, Atum, Ayida-Weddo, Ayizan, Azaka Medeh, Azaka-Tonnerre, Azumi-no-isora, Baal, Bacalou, Badessy, Bagadjimbiri, Bahloo, Baiame, Bakunawa, Bamapana, Banaitja, Ba-Pef, Baron Cimetière, Baron La Croix, Baron Samedi, Barraiya, Bata , Bathala, Bau, Beltis, Beltu, Belus, Bernardo Carpio, Bes, Biame, Biamie, Bilé, Bimbeal, Binbeal, Boli Shah, Bossou Ashadeh, Budai, Budai, Bugady Musun, Bugid Y Aiba, Bunjil, Bunjil, Cai Shen, Ceros, Chenti-cheti, Chi You, Chimata-No-Kami, Chun Kwan, Cihang Zhenren, City god, Clermeil, Congo (loa), Consus, Cronos, Cunina, Dagan, Dagda, Dagon, Daikokuten, Damballa, Dan Petro, Dan Wédo, Daramulum, Dauke, Dea Dia, Dhakhan, Diable Tonnere, Diana of Ephesus, Diejuste, Dimmer, Dinclinsin, Dragon King, Dragon King of the East Sea, Duamutef, Dumu-zi-abzu, Dzingbe, Ea, Ebisu, Edulia, Efile Mokulu, El, Elali, Elder Zhang Guo, Elum, Engurra, Enki, Enma, En-Mersi, Enurestu, Erlang Shen, Erzulie, Ezili Dantor, Fan Kuai, Fei Lian, Feng Bo, Four sons of Horus, Fu Lu Shou, Fu Xi, Fūjin, Fukurokuju, Furrina, Futsunushi, Gargomitch, Gasan lil, Gasan-abzu, Goibniu, Gong Gong, Govannon, Gran Maître, Grand Bois, Guan Yu, Guangchengzi, Gunfled, Gwydion, Hachiman, Hadad, Hakudo Maru, Han Xiang, Hapi, Hapy, Heka , Hemen, Hermanubis, Hermes , Heryshaf, Hoderi, Hongjun Laozu, Hoori, Horus, Houyi, Huang Feihu, Hung Shing, Iah, Ibong Adarna, Iho, Iku-Turso, Ilat, Ilmatar, Ilmatar, Imhotep, Imset, Iron-Crutch Li, Isis, Istar, Isum, Iuno Lucina, Izanagi, Jade Emperor, Jar'Edo Wens, Ji Gong, Julana, Jumala, Jupiter, Juroujin, Kaawan, Kagu-tsuchi, Kalfu, Kalma, Kara Khan, Karakarook, Karei, Kari, Karora, Kerridwen, Khaltesh-Anki, Khepri, Khnum, Khonsu, Kidili, Kini'je, Kitchen God, Kmvum, Kneph, Kōjin, Ksitigarbha, Kui Xing, Kuk, Kumakatok, Kuski-banda, Kuu, Ku'urkil, Lagas, Lan Caihe, Lei Gong, Leizhenzi, Lempo, Ler, Leza, Li Jing , L'inglesou, Llaw Gyffes, Lleu, Loco (loa), Lü Dongbin, Lugal-Amarada, Maahes, Ma-banba-anna, Mademoiselle Charlotte, Maîtresse Délai, Maîtresse Hounon'gon, Maman Brigitte, Mamaragan, Mami, Mamlambo, Manawyddan, Mandulis, Mangar-kunjer-kunja, Marassa Jumeaux, Marduk, Maria Cacao, Maria Makiling, Maria Sinukuan, Marinette, Mars, Marzin, Matet boat, Mawu, Mayari, Mbaba Mwana Waresa, Meditrina, Mehen, Melek, Memetona, Menthu, Merodach, Mider, Mielikki, Min , Molech, Mombu, Morrigu, Mounanchou, Mulu-hursang, Mu-ul-lil, Muzha , Na Tuk Kong, Naam, Nana Buluku, Naunet, Ndyambi, Nebo, Nehebkau, Nergal, Nezha , Nga, Ngai, Nin, Ninib, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, Nin-lil-la, Nin-man, Nio, Nirig, Ni-zu, Njirana, Nogomain, Nuada Argetlam, Numakulla, Num-Torum, Nusku, Nu'tenut, Nyan Kupon, Nyyrikki, Nzambi, Nzame, Odin, Ogma, Ogoun, Ogoun, Ogyrvan, Ohoyamatsumi, Ōkuninushi, Olorun, Omoikane (Shinto), Ops, Osiris, Pa-cha, Pangu, Papa Legba, Peko, Perkele, Persephone, Petbe, Pie (loa), Ple, Pluto, Potina, Ptah, Pugu, Puluga, Pundjel, Pwyll, Qarradu, Qebehsenuef, Qin Shubao, Qingxu Daode Zhenjun, Ra, Raijin, Randeng Daoren, Rauni , Resheph, Rigantona, Robigus, Royal Uncle Cao, Ruwa, Ryūjin, Saa, Sahi, Samas, Sarutahiko, Saturn, Sebek, Seker, Serapis, Sesmu, Shakpana, Shalem, Shangdi, Shango, Sharrab, Shen , Shennong, Shezmu, Shina-Tsu-Hiko, Simbi, Sin, Sirtumu, Sobek, Sobkou, Sōjōbō, Sokk-mimi, Sopdu, Sousson-Pannan, Statilinus, Suijin, Suiren, Suqamunu, Susanoo, Ta Pedn, Tagd, Taiyi Zhenren, Tala, Tam Kung, Tammuz, Tapio, Temaukel, Tenenet, Tengu, Tenjin, Theban Triad, Thoth, Ti Jean Quinto, Ti Malice, Tian, Ti-Jean Petro, Tilmun, Tirawa Atius, Todote, Toko'yoto, Tomam, Tororut, Tu Di Gong, Tu Er Shen, Tuonetar, Tuoni, Ubargisi, Ubilulu, U-dimmer-an-kia, Ueras, Ugayafukiaezu, U-ki, Ukko, UKqili, Umai, U-Mersi, Umvelinqangi, Ungud, Unkulunkulu, Ura-gala, U-sab-sib, Usiququmadevu, U-Tin-dir-ki, U-urugal, Vaisravana, Vaticanus, Vediovis, Vellamo, Venus, Vesta, Wadj-wer, Wen Zhong , Weneg, Wenshu Guangfa Tianzun, Wepwawet, Werethekau, Wollunqua, Wong Tai Sin, Wuluwaid, Xargi, Xaya Iccita, Xevioso, Xuan Wu , Yama, Yau, Yemaja, Youchao, Yuanshi Tianzun, Yuchi Jingde, Yunzhongzi, Zagaga, Zaraqu, Zer-panitu, Zhang Guifang, Zheng Lun, Zhongli Quan, Zhu Rong , Zonget.
What sort of view should we have about the existence of these beings?
I haven’t carefully considered all of these gods, nor do I intend to. I’ve only thought about a handful of them, and I’ve only investigated a few of them. In those cases, it became clear that the being in question might have made perfect sense to someone living in a remote village in the jungles of Borneo a thousand years ago, but that god wouldn’t make any sense as an explanation of the world now to me or to you. Gods don’t control the weather. Shooting stars aren’t religious events. The sun and the moon are just physical bodies, nothing more. The world didn’t come from an egg hatched by a cosmic turtle. Given what we have learned now about the natural world, it looks like none of these gods is a reasonable thing to believe in any more. So I have concluded, while being prepared to change my mind in case some striking new evidence in favor of Sobek’s existence comes to light or that the moon is the sun’s brother, that none of these gods are real.
Here are some details about one of them: Puluga, the Sky God of the people of the Andaman Islands
“Puluga is the Supreme Being; he is thought of very anthropomorphically, but he dwells in the sky and his voice is the thunder,the wind his breath; hurricanes are the sign of his anger, for he sends thunderbolts to punish all those who infringe his commandments. Puluga knows everything, but only knows men’s thoughts during the day. . . He created himself a wife and they have children. He lives in the sky near the sun (feminine) and the moon (masculine), with their children the stars. When Puluga sleeps there is a drought. When it is raining the god has come down to earth and is looking for food. Puluga created the world, and the first man, Tomo. Mankind multiplied and had to disperse, and after the death of Tomo grew ever more forgetful of its creator. One day Puluga got angry and a flood covered the whole earth and destroyed mankind: only four people escaped. Puluga had mercy on them, but men still remained recalcitrant. . . “
Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion.
Is Puluga real? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. As a hypothesis about the world he’s utterly implausible. If he was real, too many other things just wouldn’t make sense. Puluga was a catchall theory to explain a lot of phenomena that people didn’t have a better way to describe. The stars aren’t divine offspring. The moon isn’t masculine. There was no first human Tomo. Droughts are caused by weather patterns not sleeping gods. Rain is caused by the saturation of the atmosphere with water vapor not a god searching for food, and so on. Puluga is a magical being. There’s no magic.
What others things don’t exist that might help inform wide, positive atheism? Consider some other exotic beings that have been alleged to be real at one time or another. It’s reasonable to believe that:
There are no witches. No ghosts. There are no elves, no pixies, no trolls, no unicorns, no goblins, no fairies, no malevolent spirits, no gnomes, no succubi, no incubi, and no leprechans. There is no Bigfoot. No Loch Ness Monster. No Chupacabras. No Yeti. The Mystery Spot isn’t a Mystery. No houses are haunted. There are no werewolves, or vampires. There are no demons, and no demon possessions. It is not possible to cast a hex on someone and make something bad happen to them. If you step on a crack, you won’t break your mother’s back. Breaking a mirror does nothing negative to your future. Black cats crossing your path do not bring you bad luck. If you wear your lucky Raiders jersey while you watch the football game on television it will have no affect whatsoever on the outcome of the game. The human mind has no magical powers to act a distance. Your astrology forecast doesn’t describe your day any more accurately than it does people who have the other 11 signs of the zodiac. Tarot cards don’t work. There are no psychic powers. Dreams don’t foretell the future. You are not a Sagittarius. It is not possible to read minds. There are no animate spirits that inhabit the moon, the stars, or any natural objects. Weather patterns are not caused by the moods of supernatural or divine entities. Predictions about future catastrophes on the basis of ancient mystical texts have not come true. Bad things don’t happen on Friday the 13th. It is not possible to say some magical words and invoke supernatural forces in the world.
I take it that all of these claims are obviously true, but I’m not going to offer any justification for that here. If your wearing a Raiders jersey while watching tv in Natomas brought about their winning the game in Pittsburg, too many other things just wouldn’t make sense.
There may be some who wish to quibble with my sweeping and hasty dismissals of all things supernatural, magical, and spiritual perhaps because there was this one time when you read your horoscope and what it said was, like, soooo true, and then your cousin said that it happened to her too. And there was this other time when you were camping in the woods with your friends and you heard something strange, and you got really freaked out. I doubt that any such experiences really were of anything supernatural, but in order to make the point I wish to make, I don’t need to defend all of the claims on the list.
You’ll most likely agree that at least a large majority of these claims are true. From that, I think we can draw some general implications. It would appear that in the overwhelming majority of cases, when people have subscribed to some sort of magical, supernatural, spiritual, paranormal, or god account of what is real, we have found another better natural explanation; one that wasn’t anthropomorphic, and that doesn’t invoke mysterious magical forces or gods.
Sometimes there just isn’t any phenomena to describe at all, or in other cases we realized that there were only natural forces and entities at work and the supernatural account just didn’t fit. The supernatural account didn’t address all of the relevant information, or it didn’t address it as well, it didn’t make successful predictions, it required accepting too many other weird metaphysical claims that don’t fit, or it didn’t withstand critical analysis. Furthermore, people make mistakes, they get confused, they are hopeful, they distort, they misrepresent, they see what they want to see, and so on.
Notice that I am not arguing necessarily that people in ancient, less technologically advanced cultures than us were not justified in their beliefs. Depending upon their background beliefs, their education, and the common sense views of their culture, their belief in their god may well have made perfect sense. There’s no way, afterall, that someone living in a tiny village in rural India centuries ago who couldn’t read and who had little formal education, for example, could know what we all know now. So we can’t fault them epistemically for believing as they did. But we can reasonably conclude that their account of the world is lacking. Medieval doctors thought that all disease was the result of an imbalance in the four basic humours—black bile, green bile, blood, and phlegm. Leeches were the cure for an excess of blood in your system. That was great for them, but that’s why I don’t go find a Medieval doctor when my green bile levels are out of whack.
On the basis of what you and I know, I think it is reasonable to conclude that spooky, magical, or supernatural explanations aren’t the best account of what’s true in the world. A good part of our reasons for thinking so are all of the cases where they have failed. The past has shown us that supernatural and spiritual explanations of reality are just barking up the wrong tree. They just don’t pan out.
So where does that leave us? There is a huge burden of proof to be met by anyone claiming that some supernatural or spiritual entity is real in the light of all of these similar claims that have turned out to be mistaken. And all of these cases make it reasonable to conclude that no such beings, forces, or phenomena are real. Think of it this way: once you open that door to let one of these claims in, you’ve got an enormous amount of explaining to do about why we should expect this one to pan out. The followers of Paluga thought that, as did the Sobek-ites, and countless others.
The implication of the argument here is probably pretty clear. If all of those supernatural entities and forces aren’t real, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to apply the same reasoning to the gods that are familiar, like the God of Christianity? If there are enough similarities between the Christian God and the 500 gods, and between the role that the 500 gods played for their believers and the role that the Christian God played for its believers, then the same grounds for rejection should apply.
Of course, there are details that differ, but it sure looks like there’s a problem here. In thousands, or even millions of instances, when people have believed that some supernatural entity was real, it turned out that it wasn’t. The 500 gods on the list aren’t real. And ghosts, magic spells, and leprechans are not real. So how is this one particular supernatural claim, maybe the one that you grew up believing, different, especially when it seems to be analogous in so many ways? All of those other bogus supernatural entities should teach us something. They should leave us with a great deal of skepticism about the likelihood that any other supernatural claim will turn out to be true. It’s possible, of course. It’s also possible that magic is real, or that there are goblins. But we should demand some pretty impressive evidence to budge us off of that skepticism, however. The mere possibility isn’t enough to make them reasonable.
So the lesson we should learn from the countless specific gods, and cases of spooky, paranormal stuff that are not real is that magical, supernatural, spiritual stuff in general isn’t real. Therefore, the Christian God isn’t real, because no gods are real.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
What sort of argument could be made for wide, positive atheism, or the view that no gods or divine beings exist?