If God, then what?

I saw this review of an apologetics book that was published earlier this year, and while I’m totally unenthusiastic about the book itself, its title — also the title of this post — got me thinking about a question I often struggle to convey to theists. I don’t think this is a guaranteed “gotcha” type of question, but it’s definitely one worth thinking about, and one that (to me, as an atheist) says a lot about how we ought to construct and develop our beliefs.

Suppose for a moment that you knew nothing about the universe as it exists. All you know, we’ll assume, is that a god (the one you believe in, or if you don’t, pick one for an example) exists. What do you expect the universe to look like? Why do you expect that? Let’s further assume that Earth exists, and that humans live on it. What do you expect life to be like for humans, in this universe where your god exists?

Now repeat the process, but this time suppose that no gods exist. What would the universe look like then, and why? If there is an Earth and human civilizations on it, what do you predict the human experience to be like?

Of course, whatever side you’re on, that’s the one you’ll likely describe as looking just like the world we live in — no matter how much I try to caveat in a totally blank slate. But I do wonder what religious people think the world would look like without their god/s, especially since so much is well-explained as it is by science alone. And I think religious folks could benefit from hearing what atheists would expect the world to be like with their god existing, because our expectations are generally based on the implications of widely-held beliefs or even specific claims made in scripture. If their god’s existence doesn’t imply those things after all, then … what exactly are we talking about in the first place?

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  1. This is a very good question. In a sense this is exactly what we are asking when we talk about the problem of evil. When people ask “why do bad things happen to good people” it seems it is followed by an implied “because if God exists I would expect that wouldn’t happen that way”

  2. Jojo the Hun

     /  September 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Yes, thoughtful questions.

    It’s much easier for this theist to describe what he would expect things to be like without God. First off, no universe, just nothing.

    Given a universe exists, and knowing what we know about physics, I’d expect a relatively small quantity of an undifferentiated, low density soup of energy.

    Given that Earth exists, and humans on it, and all that implies about the nature of the universe, I would expect humans to be as animal-like as any other animals. Again, given what we know about biology, I would not expect them to have evolved things like language, mastery of fire, clothing, complicated use of tools, abstract thought, mathematics, religion, logic, literature, etc. I would not expect evolution of a conscious, perceptive mind. I’d be very interested in why anyone would expect these things to be as they are.

  3. Jojo: Many different animal species form social groups, use tools, have some limited level of communication (warning each other of predators, advertising a food source, etc.). Do you think these are presently the result of God’s intervention in those species? In this case would you expect humans to have never made it past approximately chimp-level? Not insinuating anything, just genuinely wondering.

  4. I like this. Essentially, it’s asking theists to commit to a clear and testable prediction about the implications of their beliefs, which so few of them do!

    Jojo: Your argument appears to be that the emergence of planets and then of intelligent beings is too improbable to have happened in a godless universe. I wouldn’t go with you that far, but I do agree that both those things are very unlikely. Without a guiding intelligence, I’d expect that they would happen only astronomically rarely. That, in turn, implies that if our universe is godless, we’d expect to observe beings like ourselves only in one small part of an incredibly ancient, vast, and chaotic cosmos, one that has enough resources of time and chance to permit such an unlikely thing to occur. And when we turn our telescopes outward, guess what we observe?

  5. Jojo the Hun

     /  September 18, 2012 at 11:26 am

    I like NFQ’s questions because they cut sharply, and because they cut both ways. I don’t see that she necessarily asks anyone to make predictions, valuable as that process is, but that she asks one to critically examine one’s own beliefs in what may be a very harsh light.

    Adam, I actually agree with you when you say that you wouldn’t go so far as to say “too improbable to have happened”. Just very unlikely. But from that point I don’t agree with how you get to saying, if I read you right, that the existence of humans is to be expected.

    I think there are things that large numbers can make up for, and things that they can’t. For example, in a universe in which atoms can’t form, I don’t see how you can expect life to have originated.

    In addition, given a universe like our own, I just don’t think we know enough about the numbers to be able to expect that human life would evolve.

  6. Jojo the Hun

     /  September 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    NFQ, so many things are possible, but I suspect that the sociability, tool use, and communication that exist in other species have evolved through the various physical methods of evolution, sans any “intervention”, at least narrowly construed.

    I expect we may have to examine the word “expect” pretty soon, but for now I’ll naively say that I would expect humans to never have made it “past chimp level” any more than I would expect chimps to have made it past chimp level. Or termites, ants, bees, dolphins, crows, or so on to have made it “past” their respective levels.

    By the way, I’ll politely point out that when we talk about evolving “past” some “level” we may be in danger of other readers inferring that we are violating conventional thinking about evolution being directionless.

  7. I find that the very questions you ask, regarding what sort of world I would expect if there was a (christian) god, or no god at all, were very formative in my realizing that god is made up. This sort of world is too far removed from the world I was brought up to think existed. The “predictions” that christianity makes about how things are come into conflict with reality, at least for me.

  8. My reply to the book title:
    “If God, so what”

    “god” is very very big, humans are not.

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