Monday, January 31, 2011

Werewolves, Evil Demon Possessions, Reincarnation, and God

In the past, I’ve argued for a connection between religious beliefs and other paranormal, supernatural and superstitious views.  The connection is important for several reasons. 

First, it is not an accident that as superstitiousness, supernaturalism, and paranormalism go up, education level goes down.  When people are ignorant, silly spiritual view proliferate.  As they get more education and understand more science, they abandon the primitive views that haunted them before.  One implication is that the overall credibility of religious people, particularly the ancient founders of the major religious movements is significantly undermined.  The fact that a religion arose from Iron Age peasants, by itself, does not refute it.  But it castes doubts and raises the burden of proof if we are to take them seriously. 

Secondly, folks within religious communities tend not to see their own views as on a continuum with other “strange” views.  To believe in God, or the return of Jesus from the dead, or in the conversion of juice and crackers into flesh and blood, is one thing, they insist.  But believing in hauntings, voodoo, or other paranormal phenomena is quite distinct.  For those of us on the outside, however, the distinction is usually lost.  It would appear that the only real difference between authentic supernatural claims and the silly unfounded superstitions of the natives is a matter of familiarity.  It never seems weird when it’s what you’ve know your whole life. 

Third, if a significant proportion of the population is more susceptible to anomalous experiences as the result of abnormal brain function, and I have argued that they are, then we’d expect those people, all other things being equal, to be more prone in general to supernatural beliefs.  If you are experiencing strange visions, hearing voices, having fugue states, hallucinations, or other strange moments as a result of brain function, and if you lack the education and science background to know any better, then of course you are going to conclude that there are ghosts, spirits are visiting you, God is communicating with you, or that you’ve got psychic powers.  What else could it be?  Furthermore, if you don’t understand basic statistical reasoning, confirmation bias, hedging, wishful thinking, ignoring base rates, or a host of other fallacies, and if you are surrounded by religious believers who are applying heavy pressure for a particular religious explanation, then it will be very hard to you to reason your way clear.  And if humans are biological predisposed towards religious belief by a Hyperactive Agency Detector Device, or some other means, then escaping the clutches of religious delusions will be that much harder.  (It is not a surprise that it has taken so many centuries for even a small percentage of the population to escape.) 

A new study in Psychopathology gives us more support for the connection:  

School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK.
Background: Delusions are defined as false beliefs different from those that almost everyone else believes. The aim was to develop a new measure (the Cardiff Beliefs Questionnaire, CBQ) to establish the range and prevalence of delusion-like beliefs (DLB) and compare these to other types of beliefs in the general population. Sampling and Methods: A total of 1,000 participants completed the CBQ, which uniquely assesses a broader range of currently held beliefs [delusion-like (bizarre and non-bizarre), paranormal and religious and general political/social beliefs) using this large stratified sample. Results: Strong belief in 1 or more DLB was reported by 39% of the participants (91% reporting 'weak', 'moderate' or 'strong' belief in at least 1 DLB). Moreover, 25% endorsed at least 1 bizarre DLB (76% one or more at any strength). Endorsements of DLB were strongly correlated with paranormal and religious beliefs but not general political/social beliefs. Conclusions: Both bizarre and non-bizarre DLB are frequently found in the general population, lending support to the psychosis continuum account and need to revise key clinical criteria used to diagnose delusions. The good psychometric properties demonstrated by the CBQ indicate that this measure is a useful tool to investigate the wider continuum of beliefs held in the general population.

In less science speak, what Pechey and Halligan found, among other things, is that there is a strong correlation between being religious and other strange, delusional, bizarre, and paranormal beliefs.  Never mind how they reconcile the combinations, the views that God is real, along with reincarnation, astrology, communications with the dead, evil demon possession, and black magic are rampant.  That is, religious folks are more likely to have these other strange beliefs than non-religious folks.  And people with bizarre paranormal beliefs are more likely to be religious. 

Identifying the causal arrow here is tricky.  It’s hard to know whether being religious makes one more favorable to strange paranormal beliefs, or the other way around, or if some third cause like our neural constitution is responsible for both propensities.  I’d hesitate to sign on for any particular  hypothesis at this stage, especially if it is a simple one.  What is clear is that there are a lot of crazies out there, and they are crazier than you might have thought. 

On a side note, if you were listening closely, you may have noticed a surprising revelation in my recent debates with Prof. Russell DiSilvestro.  I have been pressing a more complicated version of this argument:

1.  If you accept the resurrection of Jesus on historical grounds, then you must also accept a large number of other stories from history about paranormal events like real witchcraft at Salem and real black magic during the European Inquisitions. 
2.  But it isn’t reasonable to believe that there were real witches at Salem or real black magic during the Inquisitions. 
3.  Therefore, you should not accept the resurrection of Jesus on historical grounds. 

There are a number of responses that believers have made to this argument, but much to my surprise, Prof. DiSilvestro bit the bullet and has conceded that there must have been real witches at Salem.  And in the course of the debates he told many anecdotal accounts of strange, “unexplained,” and extraordinary things that Christians have seen such as word floating in the air, premonitions, spectral voices, and so on.  For some people, the world is indeed a spooky place, teeming with supernatural forces and events. 

Epiphenom, who brought this study to our attention, has done his usual excellent job of teasing out some interesting implications of the study:  Most People are a Bit Crazy, and Believers are a Bit Crazier Than Most. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Going Nuclear

Stephen Law has nicely put his finger on a common philosophical objection and mistake that gets lodged against atheists here:

During the Cold War, our strategy for “winning” was to resort to an option that would lay waste to everything:  Maybe we can’t win the war, but we’re willing to start a global thermonuclear holocaust and destroy all life on Earth to make sure that you don’t.”   The global thermonuclear skeptic protests against atheism:  You can’t prove that there’s no God because we can’t prove anything.  There is nothing we know with complete certainty, so there’s nothing we know.”  or alternately, “There is nothing that we know with certainty, so it’s ok for me to go ahead and believe in God (or whatever I want.)”

So critics who go nuclear on the atheist fall into at least two groups.  First, she might take the view that since absolute certainty that doesn’t admit of any doubts is required in order to know something, then both the theist who thinks he knows there is a God and the atheist who thinks there isn’t are mistaken.  They’re both claiming to have something that cannot be had, so they’re both overstepping the boundaries.  Theism and atheism involve a kind of hubris, ironically, or an illegitimate land grab.  The only reasonable position, thinks the critic, since we can achieve the necessary level of certainty about so little is to withhold assent, be agnostic, and not claim to know either way.  If these skeptical worries are extended further, then nihilism results.  Most or all of our efforts to know or believe reasonably are stultified by an insurmountable burden of proof. 

   We are nihilists!!

Alternately, the nuclear critic might take this view.   Since absolute certainty is required for knowledge, and since there is so little certainty, there is room for faith to take us to the conclusions that reason cannot support.  Since nothing is known, in effect, it’s all faith.  In this family of criticisms you often get the “atheism is just another form of religious faith” complaint.  The criticism here is that ultimately no position can provide the necessary justification, so it amounts to believing despite a lack of justification or evidence at some point.  And believing despite a lack of evidence, or even believing despite contrary evidence, is the consummate example of believing by faith.  So the atheist, with all his pretense at being reasonable, applying skepticism to everything, and claiming to only believe what the evidence supports, is actually engaged in just as much a leap of faith as all the religious adherents he criticizes.  Another variation on this theme would be the nuclear critic who seems to think that since all the other kids are doing it, including the atheist, then it’s ok for him to do it too.  If not view can meet the burden of proof, then there can be nothing objectionable about his going ahead and believing in God.  Radical skepticism paves the way for religious faith.  On this account, it’s hard to see what the atheist might be doing wrong except claiming or presuming more certitude than is real or possible. 

Time to defuse the nuclear bomb: 

The nihilist skeptic is making several mistakes.  First, even if this burden of proof issue is real, it’s not the atheist’s  problem uniquely to solve.  If it’s true that we have to have absolute, doubt-free certainty in order to know anything, then most or even all of the rest of what we think we know goes out the window.  Since on radical skeptical scenarios like the Matrix, or Descartes’ Evil Demon hypothesis none of what we see or experience externally is real, then the only thing I may know is the fact of my own existence.  And even that claim is predicated on this principle’s being true:  all of the reports of my own thoughts, beliefs and subjective experiences that I have through introspection are veridical.  I don’t know that there is a tree external to me, but I do know, through introspection, that I am thinking about and having tree like sensations.  But there is a mountain of research now calling the veridicality of introspection into doubt.  Start here for a survey and a few hundred references:    Nisbett, Richard, and DeCamp Wilson, Timothy.  Telling More Than We Can Know:  Verbal Reports on Mental Processes.   So for the nihilist critic to through this global skeptical problem just at the atheist isn’t an objection to atheism at all.  It’s demanding that the atheist solve a problem that, as formulated, isn’t solvable, and then the critic claims a questionable victory over atheism.  He may feel satisfied that he’s shown the folly of atheism, but only at the cost of giving up everything.  If you’ve burned the whole planet down to a cinder, there’s really nothing to claim victory over. 

The nuclear nihilist has another problem made clear by G.E. Moore.  Roughly, the principle that the whole objection is based upon is this:  Knowledge is not possible unless one can acquire absolute, doubt free certainty.  Call this the Certainty Principle (CP).  In contrast, consider some alternative claims that we would ordinarily treat as knowledge:  I have a right hand.  My name is Matt McCormick.  There is an external world full of objections that exist independent of my mind.  Smoking causes cancer.  And so on.  Call these Ordinary Facts (OF).  The crucial question for the nuclear nihilist is, what are the grounds, reasoning, evidence or considerations that lead you to adopt CP or think that it is true?  And how is it that the considerations that lead you to CP are so powerful that they trump the considerations that would lead you to believe OF?  Put another way, how is it that you know CP?  Are you certain of it?  Is that certainty beyond any doubt itself?  The nuclear nihilist is saying, in effect, that once all the relevant considerations are made, the reasonableness of CP completely eclipses the reasonableness of OF.  CP is better justified than OF, so we should abandon OF in favor of CP.  Now that we’ve framed the skeptical hypothesis Moore’s way, it’s easy to see the answer.  Given the choice of starting points between “There is nothing we know,” and “there are a great many things that we know,” there aren’t enough considerations that favor the former over the later.  Faced with the principle,  “If you don’t know it with absolute certainty, then you don’t know it,” and its implications, we should reconsider what led us to accept the principle instead of running off on the fool’s errand of trying to procure absolute certainty for everything we thought we knew. 

The other problem here is that skeptic appears to be ignoring a significant literature that presents arguments that do exactly what he’s denying can be done:  deductive atheology.  We now have thousands of carefully constructed analyses of the properties of God that conclude that no being with X property, or X and Y properties can exist because X or the combination of X and Y are logically, conceptually at odds with each other.  See the sections of Single and Multiple Property Disproofs in my Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Atheism for starters.  Also see The Impossibility of God, eds. Martin and Monnier. 
Also see Theodore Drange’s Incompatible Properties Arguments:  A Survey.    And see a number of Patrick Grim’s articles on omniscience such as “Against Omniscience:  The Case from Essential Indexicals,”  
Or “Truth, Omniscience, and the Knower,   Or there is this exchange between Grim and Plantinga  “Truth, Omniscience, and Cantorian Arguments:  An Exchange.”   Even if you find some of these arguments inconclusive, it is important to note that they are alleging to do that which has been pronounced impossible by the nuclear nihilist.  It would be premature of him to simple decree that no such argument has or will ever succeed in showing that God is impossible.  So we can’t really take him seriously. 

The rejoinder at this point might be:  But even if those arguments show that some notions of God are incoherent, they can’t prove that there’s no God at all, or that all gods are impossible.”    But now it appears that the goal posts are being moved.  Arguably, if a being isn’t omniscient, then that being isn’t God.  If the properties that we can coherently attribute to something can’t achieve a minimal amount of greatness, then we shouldn’t be labeling the lesser sorts of beings as “God.”  Think of “God” as a title, like heavy weight boxing champion of the universe.  It’s a placeholder for a certain kind of great entity.  The being that fills it should be powerful, knowledgeable, and good in their greatest or maximal instantiation.  If the greatest sort of thing that can exist falls far short of that minimal greatness, that lesser being doesn’t become God.  If omnipotence is incoherent, or if it is impossible to be both all merciful and all just, or if moral perfection is impossible, then it would appear that nothing worthy of the name God can exist.  Retreating to other, lesser characterizations and then clutching at hope that one of those might pan out doesn’t salvage God.  Even worse, the possibility of some other, lesser beings existing out there certainly doesn’t undermine the atheism that results from reflecting on deductive atheological arguments.  If I consider the long list of DA arguments and then (tentatively) conclude that there appears to be no description of a being that is on the one hand, sufficiently great to be worthy of the title “God,” and on the other hand, logically, conceptually, and internally coherent, the nuclear nihilist can hardly criticize my conclusion.  The justification for atheism isn’t undercut by the charge that there may be other lesser (but not worthy of the title “God”) entities out there.  
One more problem for the nuclear nihilist:  rejecting atheism because it fails to pass the Certainty Principle invokes a double standard.  I suspect that the nuclear nihilist has artificially raised the burden of proof just for those arguments he wants to defeat, but he doesn’t really take it seriously for everything else he believes.  He believes, along with Moore, that he has a right hand and a left hand, that Barack Obama is the president, and that smoking causes cancer.  Beyond the debate with the atheist, his words and his behavior betray him.  The vast majority of what he accepts and acts upon in his life fall far short of meeting the outrageous burden of proof, but he takes all of that to be known, reasonable, true, and justified.  It would never occur to him to doubt that benzene is carcinogenic were we to put a beaker full of it in front of him and ask him to drink it.  Dennett’s apt description here is that we are playing tennis and the critic lowers the net when he serves, but when I try to volley back he raises it as high as possible.  (Then he claims victory when I can’t get the ball back over the net.) 

This post is running long, so I'll deal with the nuclear advocate of faith in the next post.  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Are We Proving the Negative Yet? Lecture in Berkeley.

I'll be speaking to the East Bay Atheists in Berkeley tomorrow (January 16) at 2:00 in the Berkeley Main Library, 3rd Floor Meeting Room, 2090 Kittredge St.

Here's the write up for the East Bay Atheists about the lecture.

I'll be giving an updated version of the "Are We Proving the Negative Yet?"  lecture.  Here are the slides.

Please come if you're in the area.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

More Disastrous Effects of Adding God Into Our Moral Decisions

Being moral is hard.  Trying to sort out and prioritize the most ethically salient features of a complicated decision and then make a choice is filled with ambiguity.  And when the stakes are high, the complexities and ambiguities amplify our apprehension.  So it's no wonder that so many people derive comfort from the idea that God can see through the fog and provide us with clear and certain moral answers.  The problem, of course, is that he doesn't.  Believers are notorious for cherry picking the passages from the Bible, edicts from the Pope, or other divine sanctions that suit them while ignoring the ones that don't give them the answers they want.  Even worse, we broadcast more of our own moral sentiments onto God than we do other people, in part because what God wants is so murky.  

Also see:  "Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs."  Epley N, Converse BA, DElbosc A, Montelone GA, and Cacioppa JT.

Other research has also shown that we are prone to change our minds about moral matters when we are forced to consider the opposing viewpoint or alternatives, but we frequently conceal that shift in attitude from ourselves and insist that the view we changed to was the one we had all along.  Combine that tendency with our predisposition to attribute more of our own views to God, and you create idiosyncratic, and capricious decision makers who invoke God as their authority.  

It turns out that that combination is just as scary as it sounds.  Here's a recent study about the effects of scriptural violence on aggression by Brad J. Bushman, Robert D. Ridge, Enny Das, Colin W. Key, and Gregory L. Busath.  

"When God Sanctions Killing:  The Effects of Scriptural Violence on Aggression,"  Psychological Science, Vol. 18, Number 3.

ABSTRACT—Violent people often claim that God sanctions their actions. In two studies, participants read a violent passage said to come from either the Bible or an ancient scroll. For half the participants, the passage said that God sanctioned the violence. Next, participants competed with an ostensible partner on a task in which the winner could blast the loser with loud noise through headphones (the aggression measure). Study 1 involved Brigham Young University students; 99% believed in God and in the Bible. Study 2 involved Vrije Universiteit–Amsterdam students; 50% believed in God, and 27% believed in the Bible. In Study 1, aggression increased when the passage was from the Bible or mentioned God. In Study 2, aggression increased when the passage mentioned God, especially among participants who believed in God and in the Bible. These results suggest that scriptural violence sanctioned by God can increase aggression, especially in believers.

So now consider the combined point of all three threads of research.  1) We project more of our own views onto God than others who we know more about.  2)  We can be easily induced to change our minds about moral matters and then we hide the shift from ourselves.  And 3) when people think that God sanctions violence, they become more aggressive themselves.  That is, adding God to the considerations in moral matters would appear to make things worse because we don't actually  know what God wants, but we endow him with our own views, but when the un-moored views inevitably shift around, God provides us with a sort of carte blanche endorsement of whatever they morph into.  And adding God into the story exacerbates our aggressive and violent proclivities.  And you thought violent video games were bad.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Evolution of Hating Atheists

The fierceness, passion, dedication, and doggedness of many people’s attachment to their religious beliefs cries out for some sort of biological/evolutionary explanation.  Now evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers are more at liberty to talk about such theses openly in part because of the path that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Boyer, and Atran have forged.   And the thesis that religiousness has an evolutionary foundation has become quite commonplace and widely accepted, at least among academics.  What also strikes me is the soft-heartedness or affection for religiousness that still comes out in people who are otherwise very clear-headed, skeptical, and objective.  Good examples of this can be seen in some of the panel discussions from the Beyond Belief conference in 2006 on Science, Reason, Religion, and Survival.  

What is striking is the reception that Dawkins, and Harris, among others, get when they make a number of thoughtful, calm, and reasonable criticisms of religious believing, faith and the like.  A number of outstanding scholars in their fields respond with hesitation, restraint, and criticism.  But what’s striking is not that their criticisms are astute critiques of the arguments that Harris and Dawkins offer.  The vast majority of the panelists and even the people in the audience seem to agree that religious believing is a childish fantasy with no basis in reality.  What they seem to be more critical of is not flaws in the atheistic arguments, but of the fact that the atheists are openly arguing against religious believing.  They are more critical of engaging in religious criticism than anything else.  Many of the respondents just don’t like it that Harris and Dawkins are openly, and publicly being critical of religion and arguing that believing in God is not reasonable, even though they themselves are similarly critical in private and agree that it is unreasonable. 

This uneasiness about criticizing religious belief erupts in a number of ways.  One comment that atheists commonly get is surprisingly patronizing, even condescending:  “But people need their religious beliefs in order to get by.  It’s cruel of you to want to rob them of something that while false and silly, gives them so much comfort.”  The masses are too foolish and psychologically fragile to be able to handle their lives without religious delusions, so it would be better for everyone if we just let them persist in their happy mistake.  It’s not that the atheist is wrong, per se, it’s just that he’s messing with something that shouldn’t be messed with. 

I think a similar manifestation of this soft heartedness for religious believing can be seen in the rancorous reviews of the popular atheist books and speakers.  Despite its being utterly irrelevant to the point at hand, critics are preoccupied with what they take to be a strident, hostile, angry tone or approach in atheist authors.  (I’ve commented on this before:  Don’t Like My Tone, Am I Being Rude).  If one were to read a stack of reviews of the prominent atheist books and try to generalize about the most common and pointed criticism, it would appear that the worst thing they are doing is openly disliking religiousness to the point of anger and frustration.  (If that’s the most substantial response that an atheist’s arguments are getting, then she’s doing something right in my book.)  Take a look at this recent interview with Sam Harris by an ABC Nightline reporter.  Notice that Harris is calm and reasonable.  He never raises his voice.  He has a sense of humor.  And he’s clearly very smart.  If you turned the sound off, it would never occur to you that he's angry, frustrated, or rancorous.   But also notice that in almost every sentence, the reporter’s discomfort (and disagreement) with Harris is manifest with the inclusion of descriptors like “angry,” “inflammatory,” “infamous,” “fierce,” “harsh,” and “negative.”  
The very existence of people like Harris causes discomfort; we can’t not voice our disapproval, no matter how committed we might be to the principles of reason or journalism.  Even interviews with Osama Bin Laden were conducted with less sneer and backhanded criticism.

A number of social and historical explanations for this affection for religiousness, even among those who aren’t particularly religious (and who should know better), suggest themselves, and I’ve commented on them before.  But I can’t help but speculate about the possible biological origins of it.  The fact that so many people are so religious, and that even those people who aren’t religious work so hard to construct so many convoluted arguments for why religiousness is a good thing, screams out for a biological explanation. 

So here’s an exercise.  If there was a strong tendency or disposition towards a certain set of behaviors that had been written deep into our psyches by evolutionary history, what would it look like in our day to day lives. A candidate springs to mind:  a mother’s fierce or dedicated determination to protect the interests and safety of her children.  Pretty clearly, the disposition to aggressively defend and protect the welfare of one’s children in a species like ours where raising our offspring requires such a substantial effort would be selected for.  (There are other, more shotgun like strategies like the sea turtle who lays hundreds of eggs and then leaves them to fend for themselves.  Lay enough eggs and maybe a few of them will survive long enough to have babies themselves.)  Let’s assume then, for the sake of argument, that evolution did install a powerful mothering urge in us to foster our rare offspring up to the point at least where they can have babies of their own.  If we have that, then how would that manifest itself aside from the obvious ways of a mother protecting, feeding, and caring for her young?  It seems quite plausible that the rest of us, whether we are mothers or not, would be deeply sympathetic with a mother’s love.  We’d look upon it with affection, nostalgia, encouragement, sympathy, and honor.  Manifestations of it would strike us as beautiful, moving, and worthy of praise.  We’d all be less likely to be critical of it, even when a mother’s love goes too far.  When a television reporter interviews that mother of a known serial killer and she still insists that Ted or Henry is good boy who is innocent, we let it slide.  She’s mistaken and misguided, but we understand and are sympathetic  It would be rude, or harsh, or just impolite somehow to call her out on her mistake.    

In general, if evolution has left us with a strong disposition towards it, our ability to think clearly, objectively, and with detachment about it would be compromised.  We’d be less able and likely to see the flaws in it, and we’d be quick to praise, or encourage it.  Our whole set of cognitive skills would be handicapped in its favor.  And on the flip side, consider how difficult it is to think clearly and objectively about a pedophile.  The intense negative emotional and pre-rational reactions we have to it make it that much more difficult to be reasonable in our reactions.  The pedophile who complains about some real injustice in the judicial system, for example, can hardly find a sympathetic ear. 

So now we can see the point about religious belief in this diversion.  If we love religiousness the way we love motherhood, and a substantial part of our love for both has evolutionary roots, then how would you expect people to behave about religion?  You’d expect to see just the sort of inflamed, offended, passionate, and zealous reactions that we see when Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett do their thing.  You’d expect them to be hated or at least disliked and criticized, even by the people who aren’t particularly religious.  You’d expect to see a great deal of resistance to what they are doing, even if there’s not much substance to their objections.  
A deep dislike for homosexuality is similarly widespread, and there’s a similar absence of any real reasons for objecting to it.  Most people’s first reaction is that being gay is just flat wrong—it fills them with revulsion.  And these negative feelings about it come long before they can offer any thoughtful reasons.  (See Stephen Pinker’s piece about the evolutionary origins of those feelings of revulsion and their connection to morality.)  If religiousness evolved in us, then what the atheist is coming up against when she’s trying to talk someone out of it is much deeper and more profound than mere reasoning.  The atheist is striking a sensitive and raw nerve that millions of years deep in our natures, and, predictably, the reactions are visceral, irrational, and passionate. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Divine Attributes: The State of the Discussion

Readers here will know that I do not hold a sanguine view about the prospects for a description of God that 1) outlines being who is worthy of a suitably religious attitude, 2) conforms, even in the roughest way, with the historical accounts that have been given of God by Christianity and other religions, 3) gives a list of properties that themselves are each coherently formed and understood, 4) gives a list of properties that are consistent with each other, and 5) conforms, even in the roughest way, with what we now know about the physical universe through physics, cosmology and biology.  That is to say that we don't have, nor is there forthcoming, any account of God that makes sense along a number of vectors.  Explaining and defending each of these theses is, of course, a complicated matter, but I have been doing it across a multitude of posts, lectures, and published works.

Ex-Apologist (whose blog I highly recommend) has brought our attention to a recent article by Nicholas Everitt called The Divine Attributes.  Everitt has written a well received book called The Non-Existence of God that I also recommend for those interested in a fairly straight forward analysis, using standard analytical philosophical techniques, of the arguments for and against the existence of God.  Here's Everitt's abstract:

"Focusing on God’s essential attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, being eternal and omnipresent, being a creator and sustainer, and being a person, I examine how far recent discussion has been able to provide for each of these divine attributes a consistent interpretation. I also consider briefly whether the attributes are compatible with each other."

It looks like Everitt's overview of the recent literature, perhaps coupled with my overview of "Deductive Atheology" in the Atheism entry of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy would give one a good comprehensive picture of where philosophy of religion is today.

Then, in his summary, Everitt makes this comment:

"The divine attributes thus present a number of intriguing philosophical problems: problems with finding self-consistent accounts of each of the attributes, with ensuring that the accounts form a self-consistent set, and with reconciling the attributes with other seeming facts of human experience (divine omniscience and human freedom, divine goodness and widespread underserved suffering, etc).  Is it possible to formulate a version of theism which can simply sidestep these problems?

Suppose we start with the bare thought of God as a being who is worthy of worship.  Suppose also that we think that to be worthy of worship, a being must have a right to our allegiance, and be worthy of our love, admiration, and veneration. It is surely some such concept of worship-worthiness which has led most of those who have worshiped supernatural beings to do so. Perhaps such a god needs to be powerful – but why omnipotent? Perhaps knowledgeable – but why omniscient? Perhaps good – but why perfectly
so? Perhaps long-lasting – but why eternal? It is not as if there is any overwhelming Biblical warrant for the traditional attributions.This way of thinking of divinity has the merit, from the point of view of an impartial
uncommitted inquirer, of sidestepping the philosophical problems which the traditional attributes bring, while yet retaining the idea of worship-worthy supernatural beings. But it is not a route which has proved appealing to many theists in their reflections on the nature of the being who is the object of their worship."

My off the cuff reaction to this (I haven't had the time to give the whole article a careful read) is that it is surely possible to give a coherent description of a being possessing some degree of power, knowledge, and goodness (we are such beings, afterall), but the resulting account will suffer from new problems:

1)  Do we have any real arguments or evidence to think this sort of scaled down being exists?  The goal, afterall, is not to just give a coherent description of God at all costs.  The goal is form a reasonable set of beliefs about what's true, what sorts of things are real, and what sort of position we have in the universe historically, metaphysically, and morally.  Unless there are some substantial reasons forthcoming to think that such a being is not merely possible but real, the long list of utter failures by the smartest humans in history to render believing in God reasonable sets the prima facie burden of proof very high.  A perpetual motion machine, or gnomes may be possible, but it is fair for us to set the bar very high before we accept them as actual.

2)  I think the prospects for such a scaled down account of God giving us a being that is suitably "worship-worthy" are very dim.  In 1948, J.M. Findlay gave us a very persuasive argument in "Can God's Existence be Disproved?" that no thing short of a full blown omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being will be worthy of the title "God," and the failures of the ontological argument show that there is no such being.  (I will have to read up in Everitt to get clear on what he thinks about a Findlay style approach.)  The point:  If there is no omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being, then there is no being that should be called "God."  And other lesser notions of semi-powerful, semi-knowledgeable, and semi-good beings are philosophically and religiously irrelevant and uninteresting.

3)  It is the practice among careful, respectful, and thoughtful analytic philosophers who find some fatal flaw in an argument for the existence of God to leave every possible avenue of redress open to the theist to save some face and salvage some new, re-engineered account of God from the wreckage.  Not being as careful, respectful, and maybe thoughtful as they are, I am inclined to draw sweeping conclusions from the repeated failures of these exercises in logical and philosophical gymnastics.  See Are We Proving the Negative Yet? and Perpetual Motion Machines and an Argument Against Agnosticism for a couple of examples of my rash, overgeneralizing.  Many billions of people believe.  Many billions more have believed in history.  The widespread consensus among our best experts on the topic, philosophers of religion, is that to date, none of our best efforts to construct a justification for believing have succeeded.  Even worse, as Everitt's summary of the discussion of divine attributes shows, we don't even have a clear, coherent, or non-controversial account of what properties God would have, even if he was real.  And that's despite devoting centuries of our hardest thinking to the project.

It's time for sensible people to see the larger implications of those failures.  We've done our due diligence.  The failure of a couple of philosophical inquiries into arguments for X to produce viable grounds for believing X should just be understood as limited failures of those arguments.  The failures of ALL of our attempts, by  millions of people over the course of thousands of years to produce acceptable grounds for believing X suggests that something else is at work here than just a failure of creativity or limited resources.  (See  The Santa Principle).