What If Creationists and Atheists Are Both Wrong?

What if the way you’ve been thinking about God is all wrong?  If so, you’re in good company: according to Ric Machuga, both creationists and atheists also tend to think about God incorrectly, and both groups have been thinking about God incorrectly in the same way.

Dr. Machuga is professor of philosophy at Butte College in Northern California, and the author of Three Theological Mistakes: How to Correct Enlightenment Assumptions about God, Miracles, and Free Will.  In a recent article in Books and Culture, he argues that both creationists and atheists often make the same mistake when thinking about God.  (The article is behind a paywall; I subscribe to the print journal.)

Is God Like a Divine Watchmaker?

Does God exist?  Creationists say yes, and atheists say no.  However, we need to more specifically define what we mean by “exist:”

[Medieval philosphers] Moses Maimonides (Jewish), Thomas Aquinas (Christian), and Ibn Rushd (Muslim) all understood that ‘existence’ was not a simple Yes/No matter.  While God certainly ‘exists,’ they all insisted that God’s ‘existence’ was fundamentally unlike everything else’s ‘existence.'”

Creationists, Atheists, and Even Isaac Newtown….

In our scientific culture, we tend to think of God as a divine craftsman, a heavenly watchmaker who made the universe and set it ticking.  Creationists fight hard to defend the idea of God as divine craftsman (using Genesis 1-2), while atheists fight hard to discredit the idea of God as divine craftsman (using biology, cosmology, and paleontology).  But what if God isn’t like a watchmaker at all?

The watchmaker's bench

Professor Machuga points out that thinking about God as the ultimate craftsman is a logical mistake.

Watchmakers and watches both exist.  And though they are very different in many ways–watchmakers are conscious, intentional agents; watches are not–their ‘thingness’ is precisely the same.  Contrast this with the difference between Shakespeare and Hamlet.  While both the author and his character ‘exist,’ they certainly don’t exist in the same way.  Shakespeare existed as a human being.  Hamlet only ‘exists’ as the fictional character created by Shakespeare.  Yet, the difference between Shakespeare’s existence and Hamlet’s existence is far less than the difference between God’s existence and everything else” [emphasis mine].

Isaac Newton thought that the physical laws he uncovered were “not only consistent with the existence of a supernatural Craftsman, but that they required such a God.”  Unfortunately, Newton, for all his brilliance, made a mistake in thinking about God:

Of course, in one sense, Newton knew that God and his creation ‘existed’ in different ways.  Breadth, height, and weight are common to all material objects, whereas God is a pure spirit with neither breadth, height, nor weight.  Nevertheless, to speak of a ‘very skilled mechanic’ [Newton’s phrase] intervening to prevent planetary chaos presupposes that God and the planets exist in the same way and in the same universe” [italics in the original].

But, God and the universe do NOT exist in the same way.  God is not a just divine craftsman, and thinking of God in that way points us in the wrong direction.  A better direction is to think of God as a divine playwright, because God’s reality is utterly distinct from the reality of the universe he created.  If this distinction seems confusing, just think about Shakespeare:

Because Shakespeare is not contiguous with the world of his creature, he can have a reality, endurance, stability, and ‘otherness’ that far exceeds Hamlet’s.  Without Shakespeare, Hamlet is literally nothing.  But without Hamlet, Shakespeare is still something, even if his glory is slightly diminished.”

God Isn’t a Divine Watchmaker, but a Divine Playwright

God is not simply the largest, greatest, and strongest part of our reality; God is another reality, distinct from us.  God is not a divine watchmaker who sets the universe ticking; God is a divine playwright who wills us into existence from his imagination.

We Can’t Prove or Find God, Unless….

This means that the only evidence for God that can be found in our universe is evidence that God deliberately places here.  It means that we shouldn’t expect to be able to prove God’s existence any more than Hamlet could prove the existence of Shakespeare.  It means that unless God shows up, we can never ever find him.

And it means that the Incarnation changes everything.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “What If Creationists and Atheists Are Both Wrong?

  1. I like the analogy. I sometimes think of God as a song writer, especially when reading parts of the bible that sound more like a song than a historical account. Both the historical account and the song get to the same place – the truth. But I am having a hard time thinking of God as a playwright, since the creation of a playwright is a fictional character and even that character has no free will (song writer has the same problem). Although some parts of the bible might be more like a playwright’s creation, in a sense (like some of the parables). It is really hard to come up with a worldly analogy (whether it be a song writer, a playwright or a watchmaker) that defines God. I guess that is because nothing compares to God, and any description we come up with is by its very nature, a work of man – a man that cannot possible grasped very much definitive about God. But we never the less try. To me, God is more like our brain than anything else. Hard to understand at times, capable of anything, difficult to completely understand, able to write songs (and plays), created things, show love and anger. Our brain can sometimes be like a painter, a song writer and playwright, and at other times it can be like our lover, our caretaker, etc. I think God compares well to a “good” brain, not one that creates evil or bad things, but one that creates good things. But having said that, even that comparison falls short in many ways, because we simply cannot fathom very much about God. What little I fathom about God is good – and than God for that.

    • What I liked about the playwright analogy is that it gives us another way to think about the quest for “evidence” of God. Like Hamlet searching for Shakespeare, we can only find God if he wants to be found.