The Truth of Impossibility

Whenever one argues for this god from the perspective of this doctrine in the context of a discussion that has participants hailing from different perspectives, the argument is immediately problematic because the assumptions it deals in, at least the very big ones, carry no validity outside of the doctrine itself or, perhaps, its derivations. In order for arguments to carry universal validity they must flow from a universal position that necessarily exists beyond doctrinal or theological perspective. It may be that you do not believe there is a universal position, in which case you are uninterested in establishing the truth of anything. You may believe that your perspective is universal, which it very well may be as long as it is also my position. This is not an expression of arrogance; it is a recognition that the only universal position is one founded on reason and evidence and self-acknowledgement that this is the position with which I associate my arguments. This is the advantage atheists have in argument. Put another way, it must never be the case that I have to enter your ontological framework to engage an argument concerning the question of truth; it must always be that you have to step outside your framework to engage the question on universal grounds if the identification of truth is a serious endeavor. In this way, position is very different than perspective, in that the former does not always reduce to the latter. To make the point succinctly: if the universal position is held to be relative in the same way that a theological perspective necessarily is, then no rational discussion is possible. (None of this prevents me from also arguing within the context of your doctrinal framework. But then it would only be about relative and provisional truths, except in the case of contradiction, for then logical rules are violated – a fact that doesn’t faze most religious thinkers.)

From the position of reason, I can say with complete certainty that god does and does not exist. I am not being playful by saying this. If by existence we mean that god is an idea, then everybody, except for those who have never heard of god, knows god exists. We may call this the “god-idea.” Most people not only know about the god-idea that they believe refers to a real thing, but they know something about the god-ideas held by other people, which they are sure refer to unreal things (unlike their god-idea). And, on this last point, they are indeed correct. The god-idea comes in a lot of different forms and names (Odin, Osiris, Yahweh, and Zeus), some more interesting than others. Ideas exist in the minds of those who think them. In this way, god exists in the same way demons – or elves, fairies, trolls, dragons, unicorns, and whatnot – exist. Indeed, anything that can be imagined exists in this way. This is what we called the subjective, that is, that which proceeds from or takes place in a person’s mind rather than out in the external world. (I hasten to note that not everything is subjective, obviously, since the mind must exist prior to the subjective expression; it is a contradiction to suppose that the mind thinks itself – whatever the mind thinks of itself – as opposed to its contents.)

If, on the other hand, we mean that god is an objective thing, i.e. a thing independent of those beings who conceptualize it either actively or share/store it in external fixed symbolic media, then clearly god does not exist. We don’t need to trouble ourselves with debating the problem of proving a negative (an obvious problem, at any rate). Science ruthlessly contradicts truth claims made by religious authorities, whether these truth claims are made by persons or in scriptures. This is not a digression: denying (more accurately, rationalizing) the falsification of truth claims made by religious authorities by claiming that such claims lie beyond the realm of rational inquiry – that is, that religious thought exists as a form of truth outside of fact and reason and therefore not subject to evaluation on these grounds – is a dodge so self-evidently transparent and insulting to the intelligence that we shall dismiss it without debate; either truth claims are true or they are untrue, and the method for addressing truth involves reason and fact. Why? Again, because these are the foundation of a universal position. To be sure, there are truths that have yet been reasoned or discovered (the latter is especially practically infinite). However, god, whatever its form and name, has always been constructed in a manner which makes it impossible not only to prove (that’s by design) but, given the material structure of reality, impossible. In other words, not only are the central claims of religion either shown to be untrue or have never been demonstrated to be true (that settles the empirical question), they couldn’t be true even if an audience was convinced by the reason and facts that they were. It would have to be the case that some deception had been perpetrated if claims of supernatural agency presented with empirical symptoms.

This is the truth of impossibility, and it’s something that is rarely raised in the context of debates over the material existence of god. The best I can figure, the truth of impossibility feels like an arrogant position, as intolerant, a sort of bigotry. But it’s none of those things. It’s obvious and everybody already knows that it is true. We just have to give ourselves permission to accept it. The character of reality is such that persons cannot levitate from the ground – to walk on the water, to use a well-known claim of Christianity regarding Jesus in his divine demonstration of faith and control over the natural world – without the aid of some technology. It simply cannot be done, not only because nobody has shown it can be done, but also because the reality of things make it impossible to do. If somebody were to appear to walk on water, then you would know a trick was being performed. Jesus could not have possibly done the things it is claimed he did – not in the way it is claimed he did. Since it is impossible, no one need falsify it or demand that somebody confirm or verify it. Likewise, a person cannot rise or be risen from the dead by miracles; for if the walking “dead” should appear, then we would not that this person was in fact not actually dead. We were mistaken in our diagnosis. And if ever there was some way of raising the dead through technology then, by definition, it would involve no miracle. Et cetera. You cannot turn water into wine, feed multitudes with insufficient stores, sight the blind, or exist as a ghost (holy or otherwise). If you think you see a ghost you can relax knowing that either somebody is pranking you or you are in need of psychiatric help. Ghosts are not real. They cannot be real. They can only be imagined.

I will finish by noting that every piece of historiographical and scientific inquiry demonstrates that god and her/his/its/their attributes and exploits are human/social constructions.  The talking snake, the burning bush, the demigods, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, the golden tablets, the seer stones – all of these things are complete works of fantasy invented by human beings. God as a force in human life is the distorted projection (a refraction, if you will) of a given sociocultural context. This is why “god” is spatially and temporally variable (and internally contradictory). We know when, where, and by whom the various forms and names of “god” were created. Even if we did not know that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, we would know with complete certainty that Frodo and Gollum were invented in a particular time and place by an individual or individuals belonging to a particular group. Any belief that the characters of The Lord of the Rings were actual persons or things or that their deeds were actual deeds would be irrational on the grounds that (a) they are impossible and (b) we know who wrote the story. Such is true with all religion everywhere.

My own view is that we have tolerated the absurdity of claiming as truth the impossible and imagined things of religion for far too long. The sooner we can get humanity thinking rationally the sooner humanity can stop behaving irrationally.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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