On October 17th, Gret Glyer walked into a metaphorical lion’s den. As a lone advocate for theism in a live chat with three self-proclaimed agnostics, hosted by The Resistance Podcast, Gret had his work cut out for him.
I’d like to preface this article, as I did in the episode itself (which you can view here), by saying that I very much like Gret as a person. He’s someone I’d consider a friend, and he’s doing work through his revolutionary giving platform, DonorSee, which is invaluable to relieving the tremendous human suffering in the world. To me, Gret is the ultimate humanist, though I’m sure he’d likely dismiss the label and its connotations as a theist.
Secondly I’d also like to note that, while these conversations about life, existence, morality and purpose are necessary to have, what we covered in an hour and a half YouTube live stream was by no means exhaustive of the great breadth of conversations that have been ongoing for millennia untold, and will likely continue to captivate the human psyche for millennia hereafter. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the unconvincing arguments put forth by Gret, on behalf of a “theistic worldview”, as they deserve a genuine critique due to their problematic nature and its implications for real world practicability.
Lastly, as a self-proclaimed agnostic (and a former Christian), I will not dismiss the possibility of higher intelligence in the vastness of the universe in which we find ourselves. However, in order to commit to the belief in such an intelligence I would require, not only proof, but a demonstration of exactly why this extraterrestrial being is owed my allegiance.
I find the truths of the religions, created by men, thus far to be unsatisfactory in demonstrating either. Yet, these religions make very bold claims and they also seek to impose a codes of conduct, not only onto their adherents, but additionally onto many who don’t hold their beliefs.
The translation from philosophy to practice must not be ignored or dismissed by theists because it has real world impacts on nearly the entire human populace. Much as the effects of socialism or a myriad of other social ideologies cannot be dismissed. Practice is just as important as theory, and as one who does not hold dogmatic faith I feel the need to challenge these systems of belief for, if we left it up to the faithful to self-police their ideologies, we’d find an utter lack of genuine questioning and reform within the religious sphere.
Why Do We Exist?
In our live stream event, Gret presented two arguments as proofs of the existence of a higher power: Human existence and morality.
As I mulled over these two arguments in the subsequent weeks after the stream, I found them sufficiently failing to make the point that he’d set out to make.
I’ll begin with the argument of existence…
How have we come to exist? Why do we exist? Is there a greater purpose woven into our fragile, finite DNA? These are questions many have asked for centuries upon centuries and which, due to a lack of quantifiable data, have often been answered with transcendent ideas.
Gret’s argument was our very existence is, in itself, a proof of a higher power. It’s basically the “you can’t get something from nothing” argument, to which I’d respond that simply because a process is unknown, it doesn’t warrant something else being true.
As an example, as a resident in the midwest region of the United States, I’m not unfamiliar with the sight of farms. In fact, broad swathes of farmland dominate the majority of scenery as I drive to work every day. Sometimes I even see horses out roaming about in certain fields. Suppose I were to look at those horses as I drove to work one day, and started marveling at their existence, after all, horses are another life form which had to have had a beginning just as we humans did.
What if I came to the conclusion that I could definitively state that, by the very existence of horses I could proclaim with utter certainty the existence of unicorns?
What if I proposed that horses are, in fact, a flawed version of the mythical unicorn, that they’re made in the unicorn’s image, but that they don’t possess the magical properties or longevity of life because of the state of the world?
Do these assertions give legitimacy to the existence of unicorns?
Can I definitively state, and expect others to believe, that unicorns exist based on my personal observation?
I think most reasonable people would disagree.
Simply noting, and marveling at the existence of something does not give legitimacy to a secondary, unprovable assertion simply because we wish it to be so.
Our existence, as finite as it is, is something to be questioned and wrestled with, however, simply attributing the yet unexplained to the divine is not an adequate explanation of the phenomenon. There have been many instances in the linear progression of human history, in which, certain things were thought to be beyond the realm of human comprehension, attributed to “God”, and then explained as science and technology progressed.
Humans once believed the world was flat, now we know it’s round. Humans once believed the universe revolved around earth, now we know we revolve around the sun. Humans once thought disease was the work of the devil and his minions, yet the advent of epidemiology has shed light upon the patterns and causes of diseases, and modern medicine has cured the incurable.
It is my contention that science will also, in time, explain the details of human origins.
Philosophy ≠ Reality
Gret also made the contention that humans experience an underlying sense of a greater morality, and that this instinct is a sort of residual imprint left on our consciousness by a higher power. The existence of this instinct is not only proof of a higher power/intelligent designer, but it also subsequently proves that “Objective Morality” can only exist within a theistic worldview. That is to say, unless there is a belief in a higher power within individuals, there is no objective standard for morality.
Long story short, if God doesn’t exist everything becomes subjective and “right” and “wrong” are simply determined by precedent, and agreement between collectivities.
Gret has gone on, in days since the debate, to make a series of videos trying to prove the contention that objective morality cannot exist outside of a theistic worldview. Interestingly enough, these videos don’t seek to prove the existence of God, but merely try to prove a philosophical point.
The human discomfort with admitting subjectivity in any facet of life is fascinating to me. Many claim a religion or set of principles to give themselves an illusion of control in an otherwise chaotic existence. Maybe that’s what it is at its core, a desire for control and equilibrium. A desire for rules and fairness in an unfair, unjust world. The concept of God and his (hers/its) grand standard of objective morality, which will ensure justice against the wicked, and reward the innocent, is very nice in theory, but it is unprovable and the empirical evidence suggests the opposite of this idea.
Human morality has been far from consistent over the ages. We live in a subjective reality daily. A brief study of cultures and the evolution of laws and codes of justice will show that practices of the past, which were considered abhorrent (such as child sacrifice, torture, etc.) were actually a part of the framework of many ancient civilizations. Throughout the evolution of humanity it has been the gradual emergence of societies from theocratic autocracies which have morphed into secular democracies, in which we’ve seen the highest regard for human rights the world has yet seen.
Yet, even in this era, there are still very divergent courses of thought when it comes to this “underlying universal morality” which is written on the hearts of men and women everywhere.
An argument that Gret made for this subconscious, universal morality was that “rape is bad, everyone knows it’s bad, and this universal understanding is the proof that there exists a system of objective morality independent from subjective human belief systems”. To which I would argue that, as horrifying as the act of rape is to many raised in cultures respecting human rights, there are other cultures whose members do not have these strong sentiments ingrained within them. One has only to look at the Middle East and their attitudes toward rape to see that this is a false assertion.
When challenged on the fact that even those with a biblical worldview have vastly different, and inconsistent notions of what is moral and what isn’t, Gret ended up nixing his own argument by taking it out of the practicable bounds of human understanding by maintaining that God’s standards transcend the human experience and practice, essentially rendering this philosophical idea of “objective morality” at best irrelevant, at worst unknowable.
If the Bible itself is truly a revelation from a supreme being to his progeny, an infallible impartation of his will and desires for human conduct, then one would assume that it would at very least be cohesive, easy to interpret and would inspire unity among the adherents of that religion. The Bible has proven to be anything but these things, and many of the followers of Christianity don’t know, or utterly disregard the history of the organized church modifying texts, consolidating political power through violent coercion of those who disagreed with the authorities of the time, and the discouragement of skepticism and questions with the preferable course of blind faith and submission to corporate practices.
The argument of overarching morality that is somehow embedded within the human experience is not a convincing argument.
If this morality is transcendent of human understanding, then it is impracticable. If this morality is accessible to human beings then it is inconsistent based on every conceivable way of measuring consistency within human history, and the empirical evidence of the current day.
Either way, I do not see a God in this assertion. I see a messy history of human conduct, the evolution of beliefs from civilization to civilization, based on mutual agreement. I also see, with the drastic increase of individual liberality from the 18th Century on, the elevation of self-interested policies, which were previously unthinkable.
Speech and argument, the formation of ideas and the ability to challenge ideas which have been formed are the mechanisms by which societies thrive or fail. They are the engine which drives humanity forward or causes us to falter and fall into obscurity. Often, religious thought, being of a conservative nature and unwilling to challenge conventional authority and dogmas is an impediment to the liberal exchange of ideas and a healthy public discourse.
I have many friends and family who are religious, but reside largely outside of the corporate temples in which free speech and dissent are stifled. I love these friends dearly and can have honest, authentic conversations with them. I don’t fault them for their choice of worldview, but I also won’t refrain from challenging their worldview and, in turn, they challenge me to continually examine my own perceptions. If we choose to disagree at the end of the day, so be it, at least the conversation was had.
This certainly won’t be the last debate that I’ll engage in on the topic of God or of the metaphysical more generally, and while I appreciate Gret’s boldness for stepping up to the plate and offering an alternative worldview, I have a long way to go before I’m convinced of the legitimacy of his arguments for a divine being.
But that’s the beauty of the free exchange of ideas, isn’t it?