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UKIP are on the march, seeing a surge in support in the local government elections and getting the most number of seats in the European elections.
It would be easy to see this as representing a sea change in British politics. And because it’s the line of least resistance, that is what the political pundits have done. Labour won 44% of the council seats, the Tories 36%. They apparently need to ‘learn lessons’ from UKIP who didn’t quite win 4%, who have no chance of winning a single seat at the general election next year, and whose share of the vote actually fell.
UKIP is an optical illusion, a mirage. Once you work out where those votes came from, the prevailing narrative on UKIP collapses.
So what’s the prevailing narrative?
Here’s the change from last time in the European Parliament elections:
UKIP have increased their share by 11%
Labour are up 10%
The Conservatives are down 4%
The LibDems are down 7%
The BNP is down 5%
Various parties called things like Christian Coalition Against the EU are down 3%
The prevailing narrative goes something like ‘there’s a new force on the right of British politics’, and that because the Conservatives are a right wing party, you can account for the UKIP gains adding up some Tory defectors from the extreme right, the BNP and the anti EU parties’ tallies together. The Tories can ‘only win’ if they throw their lot in with this right wing coalition that represents a neglected constituency of voters.
OK. Now explain where Labour’s votes came from.
The first mistake is that politicians and journalists of all political persuasions believe that there’s a silent majority of ‘traditional’ British people. Call them ‘Daily Mail People’, after the newspaper. (For any Americans in need of translation, think of the Daily Mail as a print version of Fox News, but with lots of pictures of Hermione Granger because their readers like whacking off to those). The Daily Mail People aren’t of a particular social class – there are working class gorblimey Cockneys in there and there are Home Counties ladies who you’d get Penelope Keith to play. What unites them is that they are white, greying, monitor their house price in real time, they didn’t go to university but their kids do and they attribute this to it being easier to get into university nowadays. They are aspirational, status obsessed, puritanical. They are, in a polite way, ragingly racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic.
For politicians and media types, Daily Mail is rhyming slang for ‘holy grail’.
For a very long time, the belief has been that the Daily Mail People are the secret to winning elections, but it’s all very mysterious, because … well, no politician or journalist has ever actually met a Daily Mail Person. The BBC understands that they’re particularly bad at knowing anyone like that because there aren’t any in London. But on the occasions they venture to, say, the North, Scotland, the East, Wales, the South, Ireland or the West, they never find any in those places, either. They must be very good at hiding, the logic goes. Lots of people, after all, watch Top Gear.
But UKIP, it’s reckoned, have somehow not only found them, they’ve worked out a way to get the Daily Mail People voting, they talk their language. They have activated the Daily Mail sleeper agents and British politics will never be the same again.
The defining issue of a Daily Mail Person, we are told, is ‘immigration’ and the ‘political class’, they say, ‘just don’t get it’. The political, media and academic class think in terms of a global economy. We live in a world where there’s free movement of capital and free trade but not free movement of labour. The rich and the transnational can hire workers where it’s cheap, sell goods where they’re expensive and put the proceeds where they don’t have to pay tax. The ‘elite’ think of ‘Immigration’ as something a bit old fashioned, like the gold standard, coal scuttles or paying for the music you listen to. Immigration isn’t actually even a thing. You can’t, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, migrate into or out of a globalised economy.
But when ‘traditional’ British people say ‘immigration’, the story goes, they mean foreigners coming over here and stealing our stuff. Everything from our job down the market to our ability to weigh our potatoes in pounds and ounces. It directly affects their lives, all the time.
And this belief is meant to be a right wing shibboleth in the UK the same way abortion is the US. There are, the theory goes, a huge number of British people obsessed with immigration and the mainstream parties don’t understand that, and need to tack to the right. Anti immigration parties will always blindside ‘mainstream politics’ because we’re all liberals who can only respond to Daily Mail People by constantly underestimating, ignoring or demeaning them.
Well, OK. The reason no one’s ever met these people is because they don’t exist, or at least not in any great number. But humour the theory for a moment. If there were twenty million Daily Mail People, should the political class act accordingly?
There are people who’ve said that much of the UKIP vote this time was because the Cameron government made gay marriage legal. Is this a good theory? Probably not. The same people making this argument also blamed the rain this winter on gay marriage. The fact our politics can usually ignore such … let’s call them “extroverted irrationals” … is a feature, not a bug. There is racism, sexism and homophobia in Britain, but the reason we don’t usually see it reflected in our politicians, at least not publicly, is because the system works, not because it doesn’t. We’re a representative democracy. We don’t elect people to pander to our whims, we elect people we think are knowledgeable and have sound judgement.
We’re all basically idiots. That is to say that even the smartest amongst us have only limited knowledge.
But so what?
Can you hold the view that something should be done to get those Nigerian girls back with no real clue who took them, why they were taken and only a vague sense of where Nigeria is? Of course you can. Who is the moral idiot in the following conversation: ‘Someone kidnapped three hundred teenage girls from a school and they’re being forced into marriages – by which I mean raped. We should help those girls.’ / ‘Not unless you can point to where it’s happening on a map’.
What we want is a political structure that goes ‘right … here’s what’s happening, here are our options, and this is what we’ll do’. Not just in the case of the Nigerian girls, but generally. And the way you get to that form of government is not, I humbly suggest, by putting people in charge who think raining happens because it’s raining men, halleluiah. Does that sound patrician and insulting? Boo hoo. One of the most important functions of a democracy, one of the prime advantages it has over other systems, is that it insulates against idiocy.
So … OK, if UKIP isn’t a grand alliance of Daily Mail People, then what’s going on?
It’s important to note I’m talking about broad trends. Will some people have switched votes from Labour to Conservative, Conservative to Green, Green to BNP? Sure. But if we’re looking for a narrative, we have to smooth things out a little. I’m going to suggest the prevailing narrative of Daily Mail People finally having a voice doesn’t work, and there’s a much better explanation.
First of all, let’s look at the BNP number. They’re down 5%, let joy be unbounded, but … wait, that means in 2009 they were up to 6%. Yikes.
The Daily Mail Person model would suggest they’ve gone to UKIP. Because the BNP’s right wing and UKIP’s right wing and the BNP went down and UKIP went up.
No. The 2009 BNP vote was a protest against Gordon Brown’s government. There is no need to protest the Gordon Brown government in 2014. It’s far more plausible to think those votes didn’t go to UKIP in 2014, they went back to Labour. Because that’s what one type of protest voters do. They are loyal to one party, but occasionally want to register their disapproval. And we know this is what actually happened because if the BNP people last time voted UKIP this time … well, they also all moved house and were replaced by Labour voters. The new UKIP votes didn’t come from the BNP areas.
So where did UKIP get their new supporters?
1. Tories making a protest vote, just as Labour supporters did five years ago with the BNP. Survey after survey has around half of UKIP voters saying they voted Tory in the last election and probably will at the next one. And straight away, that’s the killshot for the ‘realignment of British politics’ story. Most of UKIP’s votes come from Tories registering disapproval, and most of them will just vote Tory when the general election comes.
2. The LibDems always attracted votes from people who didn’t want to vote for either Labour or the Conservatives. A longer term protest vote, not a one time deal. LibDem support has collapsed, surely, simply because you can’t protest vote by voting for a party of government. The realignment in UK politics may be that UKIP now get all the ‘a plague on both their houses’ votes. Except without the regional pockets that actually generate any seats.
3. About 3% last time voted for parties called things like The Christian Popular People’s Front Against the EU and the People’s Popular Front For Anti-EU Stuff. UKIP do seem to have soaked up those.
People are not voting ‘for UKIP’, at least not in any great numbers. They are benefiting from being a go to vote for both disaffected Tories and people who used to vote LibDem as a way of voting ‘Neither’.
Why are people disaffected with UK politics? It’s not ‘immigration’. It’s that the party leaders of the two electable parties look like this:
No, seriously. The next Prime Minister is one of these two people. It suits the Conservative and Labour Parties to portray this as a Manichean struggle between ‘the mainstream’ and the extreme right. This isn’t about anything as grand and ‘good and evil’ as ‘fighting racism’. Nigel Farage just beat Labour and the Tories in a national election. He is patently a useless wanker. The unpalatable truth that the ‘mainstream politicians’ don’t want to face up to is that they’re even more useless than that. This is not them being outflanked by the great forces of history … this is them being trounced by … this:
We’re at a weird point. The Labour Party were in power a long time, they wore out their front bench. All the good potential leaders are too old, have retired, died or just burned out. The Tories aren’t much better – the 1997 result wiped out a lot of people who might have led the party and made it an entirely pointless prospect for the ambitious, so they had to start from scratch from a tiny talent pool.
So we’re at a point where the two main parties are in a post-Apocalyptic, rump state simultaneously. And a point of economic slump and no plan to get out of it. And at a point where there are vast problems facing the world like climate change and resource bottlenecks that are simply beyond the ability of a nation state to fix. Not old problems like a dictator or nationalist movement, but actual planetary level emergencies that no amount of diplomacy or tank divisions will solve. We used to worry we’d run out of oil, then that we’d drown as the seas rose, but hey, no problem, we’ll run out of drinking water long before that.
Most horrific ‘we’re screwed’ fact I’ve heard? Thanks to a combination of an increase in container freight and overfishing, the weight of all the ships on the ocean is now greater than the weight of all the fish in those oceans. Congratulations, we killed a planet.
What’s the solution? Let’s check Labour’s answer. Oh. It’s ‘Ed Miliband’.
It does give you the sense that perhaps they aren’t asking the same question. The same category of question, even. The same kingdom of question. That the problem is not so much that Ed Miliband is ‘weird’ but that his entire party lives in a parallel universe, one where, presumably, both the problems and sandwiches are smaller.
We, all of us, everyone living on this planet have the sense that what we have isn’t working. That there’s some solution involving, y’know, grassroots organisation rather than massive bureaucracy (but with a massive bureaucracy to protect us), more efficient use of energy, making things instead of selling financial products to each other, the rich people not being quite so rich and the poor people not starving to death.
The solution is not UKIP, UKIP is a symptom. And ‘immigration’ is not a problem, it’s a symptom of the fact we genuinely do live in a world where some of the most important resources are dwindling fast. We all, I think, have the sense that building big walls around things, metaphorically and literally, is a terrible idea but might be the best plan we’ve got.
The Labour Party and the Conservatives do not need to become cretinotropic to mop up a few percentage points from UKIP with the aim of becoming the largest party in a hung parliament. This is a representative democracy, this is a time where we’re not actually in crisis but are staring at it, and that means we need leaders who behave like the best of us, on our best days. There is much to love about Britain, but there are also serious problems that need serious solutions.
UKIP is clearly not a serious anything. But it’s going to be much easier for Miliband’s team to arrange a photo op where he’s drinking a pint like a regular human from our dimension, and for Cameron to pledge a referendum to deport Great Uncle Bulgaria than it is to start acting on the big, difficult stuff. ‘You voted for UKIP, we listened’. But people didn’t vote for UKIP, UKIP was just a handy place for a diverse set of protest votes to converge. All we voters want, I think, is a leader who’s not a wanker who seems vaguely engaged with an effort to make the future somewhere worth living in for most, if not all, people. This is not a high bar. There are huge, possibly intractable problems facing the twenty-first century and we’re at the point where any baby born in the UK from now on can reasonably expect to see the twenty-second century. We need politicians who are thinking further ahead than next May. We’re not saying we expect someone to solve things overnight by waving a magic wand, we’re saying we know we can’t, so we need to make a start now. So, please, stop obsessing about UKIP and get to work. Ignore UKIP, ignore UKIP hard. There is no such thing as UKIP.
I made a 2048 that I think reflects the true nature of the game.
There’s a nice little article here about why Superman wears his underpants on the outside, which comes to the answer that the crude printing techniques meant that designs for characters had to be segmented and multicoloured, or it would be hard to understand what was going on in the picture.
But what about above the waistline? Why’s Superman wearing a leotard? There are a number of explanations. The reason that I’ve heard a number of comics’ scholars give is that it’s based on a circus strongman outfit. I’m sure strongman outfits came in all sorts of colours and designs, and I’m sure some may have had capes … although I’ve never found one.
Here’s Superman fighting someone in a strongman outfit:
I think there might be another solution. I was listening to the Knights of the White Carnation, a 1947 Superman radio serial. In that, we’re told Superman changes into his ‘jersey’.
Here’s a football jersey from the 1940s:
… and this is what Superman looks to be wearing in the early live action appearances:
Now, in the comics and animation, there tends to be a cleaner line, and the early versions are fairly light on detail generally, but it’s a few years down the line before Superman seems to be wearing something skintight that shows off all his muscles. Early on, he seems to be wearing something a little thicker. He fills it out, sure, but you don’t see every contour of his body.
If true, this still doesn’t explain the boots or the tights, of course …
I’ve had a few things published online recently which I’d like to draw your attention to, a story in an upcoming anthology and also a couple of new interviews.
I wrote about Alan Moore’s influence on True Detective for Psycho Drive In here.
There’s a three part article for Sequart about some unintended political consequences for portraying superheroes realistically which you can get to here.
I’ve co-written a story for Iris Wildthyme of Mars with my old partner in crime, Mark Clapham (by ‘partner in crime’ I mean we did some bank jobs and off licences together back in the nineties).
And, if you are so inclined, you can vote for Magic Words, my Alan Moore biography, in the Eagle Awards here.
There’s a passage in Matthew’s account of the Resurrection (27:52-53) that hasn’t received much attention until relatively recently. At the moment Jesus is resurrected:
“the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”
Christopher Hitchens was among the more prominent people to do a doubletake: ‘These rather conspicuous events, which among other things would seem to make resurrection something of a commonplace, were entirely missed by Saint John, or at any rate unreported by him, and appear not at all in the only written historical record, which was by Flavius Josephus.’.
All four canonical gospels spend a lot of their time discussing the events of the death and Resurrection of Christ (at least a third of their word count), but only Matthew thinks it worth mentioning that ‘many holy people’ emerged from their tombs and walked into Jerusalem, and the quote above is the sum total of Matthew’s description. It does beg a few questions: How many holy people? Who were they? Who did they appear to? What happened to them afterwards?
Matthew is describing one of the most impressive miracles anywhere in the Bible, and not just because it sounds spectacular, dramatic and above all else public, so difficult to dismiss. It’s significant because it’s a miracle that’s not just a conjuring trick, it’s something that should have been extraordinarily informative, with some direct theological implications. Did these holy men say anything interesting? Lazarus did, we’re told, when he returned from the dead. Did they just stand there? How did people recognise them, if they didn’t say anything?
Perhaps a more practical question is to ask where Matthew got his information. Well, the first thing to note is that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew refers to the apostle Matthew in the third person, and that the attribution of this Gospel to him is based on a fourth century source who said Matthew wrote a book of collected sayings in ‘the language of the Hebrews’, then ascribes a Gospel to him that isn’t a book of sayings and most scholars agree was originally written in Greek. There is, as ever, some debate, but no one really argues that the author of Matthew was an eyewitness. He was writing at least one, probably two generations after the event, and he was probably living in Syria. Even if he’d been living in Jerusalem at the time, he couldn’t have been an eyewitness to every event of those days. If he’d seen the ‘many holy people’ who’d risen himself, you might think he’d describe that in more detail.
He based what he wrote on ‘Mark’ (the earliest gospel, most scholars agree); the Q Document, which is not, as Chris Morris once suggested, the book where Christ was issued his Walther PPK and gadgets, but a now lost book of Jesus’ sayings that ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ seem to have read but ‘Mark’ apparently hadn’t; and some material unique to Matthew, which he’d possibly acquired by collecting oral accounts or referring to now-lost letters, lists or similar documents.
Where did the author learn about the ‘many holy people’? We don’t know. There are – as far as I’ve been able to find out – no other contemporary accounts, either from Christian or non-Christian sources, canonical or non-canonical, that even hint at it. It does seem odd that something so spectacular didn’t rate a mention anywhere. This may or may not mean something. The Romans loved stories about weird happenings, what we’d call Fortean events now. But not everything was widely reported and the surviving written record is fragmentary. It’s entirely possible (and completely impossible to prove) that it was the talk of the town for a hundred years, or survived for a long time as an urban myth.
There’s an obvious sceptical explanation: it didn’t happen. And we can qualify this further by saying Matthew clearly had a pragmatic reason for adding it – his is the Gospel most concerned with reconciling the life of Jesus to the Old Testament and Jewish tradition generally. The early church faced scepticism from Jews who didn’t think Jesus fit the description of the Messiah from prophecy. (Ezekiel 28:24, for example, says that ‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbours who are painful briers and sharp thorns’, and a pedant might feel Jesus missed his performance target on that). Matthew does include information that doesn’t appear in the other Gospels but which aligns Jesus with prophecy. There are cynical and non-cynical explanations for why he would do that, but the simplest explanation either way is ‘in order to fit prophecy, the author of Matthew added these couple of lines’. Off his own bat? Possibly, but you’d imagine and hope someone would say ‘er … not heard that before, where did you get this bit from?’. And while there are parts of the New Testament that scholars agree have been, for want of a better word, retconned so that the account of Jesus’ life and actions fits the expectation for a Messiah, it’s not clear which prophecy this ‘many holy people’ rising would be fulfilling.
But the cynical explanation fits the facts as we know them: the author of Matthew (who isn’t the apostle Matthew) essentially made it up, because it helped his case.
It should be noted that there are places in Matthew where he does seem to offer some awkward moments, that his account isn’t some neat whitewash, and that he seems to be engaged in an exercise of writing down what people already believe, rather than making stuff up.
I’ve found precisely one reference to it between Matthew and the present day. [Edited to clarify: by which I mean a reference that's attempted to elaborate on the risen holy people walking into Jerusalem as historical event and fill in details. Thanks to Kate Orman (see comments), this article demonstrates that many Christian scholars have accepted it and referred to it. The main point of discussion appears to be the story logic of exactly when they were resurrected. Many elide it with some form of the Harrowing of Hell. There is some discussion about what happened to the risen saints - the consensus seems to be that they ascended with Jesus. Again, this begs a question - that would mean that a group of resurrected holy people spent forty days in Jerusalem. Where were they? Apparently they were not doing anything at all worth mentioning. You'd think if they were with Jesus, then they'd feature in some accounts of what Jesus did. When Jesus seeks to reassure Doubting Thomas, for example, he shows him his wounds. Presumably if he had a cohort of resurrected Jewish prophets and patriarchs with him, Jesus would have gone on to say 'and there's also these guys'. Geisler cites Ignatius, writing in the very early second century. Ignatius is a key early figure in Christian history, and must have been a contemporary of 'Matthew'. It's interesting, I think, that Ignatius cites 'Scripture' to support the account of the holy people rising, given that the only scripture we know that mentions it is Matthew. Presumably appearing in scripture would have made the claim more plausible than if Ignatius said he knew a friend of a friend who'd seen it with his own eyes. Sticking to the evidence we know about, all we can infer from Ignatius is that he read Matthew and accepted it, 'it' explicitly including the story of the risen holy people.]
The only source to elaborate on the story as historical event is The Mystical City of God. Not Augustine’s book, but a book a mid-seventeenth century nun, Mary of Jesus of Agreda, said was dictated to her by the Virgin Mary. This is from Book 6, Chapter 11:
‘In all this glory and heavenly adornment the Saviour now arose from the grave; and in the presence of the saints and Patriarchs He promised universal resurrection in their own flesh and body to all men, and that they moreover, as an effect of his own Resurrection, should be similarly glorified. As an earnest and as a pledge of the universal resurrection, the Lord commanded the souls of many saints there present to reunite with their bodies and rise up to immortal life. Immediately this divine command was executed, and their bodies arose, as is mentioned by saint Matthew, in anticipation of this mystery (Matthew 27, 52). Among them were saint Anne, saint Joseph and saint Joachim, and others of the ancient Fathers and Patriarchs, who had distinguished themselves in the faith and hope of the Incarnation, and had desired and prayed for it with greater earnestness to the Lord. As a reward for their zeal, the resurrection and glory of their bodies was now anticipated.’
This puts a little flesh on the bones, as it were. St Joseph is Mary’s husband, Anne and Joachim are Mary’s parents (their names are nyotas, in this case from the Gospel of James, a book not accepted as canon from the generation after Matthew). It’s a little strange that none of the other ‘holy people’ are named – they would, presumably, have to have been ones entombed just outside Jerusalem. Again, there’s no secular source for where Mary of Jesus of Agreda got this information. Is it a passed down oral tradition? If so, then it’s not left another mark, and it is not part of official Catholic teaching.
‘Immortal life’ here would seem to mean that the risen saints didn’t return to their tombs, that their resurrections weren’t temporary. It’s presumably, though, not meant to imply they’re still wandering the Earth. If they’d ascended bodily to Heaven, as some Christian traditions teach Mary did, that would be worth mentioning. This was the conclusion of the fifth century St Remigius, who said ‘We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord’s resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him’.
Bede thought Joseph was buried in the Valley of Josaphat, eleven miles from Jerusalem. There are various other traditions, and Bulgaria’s National History Museum has relics including body parts. The relics of St Anne have been venerated since the eighth century, and there was a church built over Anne and Joachim’s tombs in the fourth century which survived until the ninth. That would seem to contradict the account in The Mystical City of God, and it also suggests that there’s no prevailing tradition to suggest Joseph or Mary’s parents were resurrected.
Whether you think it happened as an historical event or not, it’s still odd, isn’t it? Why isn’t the story of ‘many holy people’ more prominent in Christian teaching? Why isn’t this a big deal? Have the bishops and theologians really just glossed over it in the hope no one ever invents Christopher Hitchens or blogging? If we take the post-theist approach, that religious narratives are stories, then I think the answer becomes obvious. Surely Hitchens is right that, in story terms, all these other resurrections cheapen the main one that day, or at the very least shift the focus away from the protagonist (note that The Mystical City of God does quite a neat job of fixing this problem by having Jesus actively initiating and guiding the process). I think another has to be that … well, it’s only a couple of lines in one of the Gospels, and they’re oddly offhand. The author of Matthew didn’t seem to think it worth dwelling on, it was 1600 years before anyone else seems to have mentioned it. Logically, we might feel it ought to be important, but that’s not the story being told.
The exact definition of atheism is one that’s hotly-debated in philosophical circles. The everyday meaning, roughly: ‘an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God’ is simple enough, as is the slight clarification ‘or any of the gods’, and its corollary, ‘y’know or all of that stuff, like devils, angels, prayers, the afterlife, miracles and so on’.
But traditionally there’s been a problem which boils down to whether atheism is holding the belief ‘there is no God’ or not holding the belief ‘there is a God’. I think it’s easy to see there’s (a) little practical difference, and (b) quite an important one philosophically. It essentially comes down to who has the onus to justify their position, and the upshot is an endless cycle of ‘you need to prove God exists / no you need to prove God doesn’t exist’.
Part of the point of being an atheist is that you really don’t think this sort of thing is worth bothering with. But, if pressed, most atheists would say they hold the belief ‘there is no God’, rather than not holding the position there is one. Atheists who do talk about their atheism are fond of saying things like ‘Off is not a TV channel’ or ‘abstinence is not a sex position’, ‘people who don’t live in Manchester aren’t Amancunian’. It seems faintly ridiculous to suggest that someone who is not interested in Cricket ‘has not-interest’ in things like spin bowling, the West Indies, Wisden or the state of the pitch at Lords.
If atheism is framed as ‘not holding the belief “there is a God”’, that assumes the default state of the human race to be ‘religious’. It’s no coincidence that theists often accuse atheism of being a ‘religious belief’, or that ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist’, or say things like ‘the vast majority of the human race is religious’. If someone told a vegetarian that they were carnivorous, because No Meat is a type of animal, you would probably think that someone should be sectioned, but ‘atheism is a religious belief’ is a respectable argument in theistic circles.
It would be handy strategically for theist philosophers if atheism was ‘holding the position there is no God’, as it essentially makes the argument a Home game for them, not an Away one. Atheists, by that definition, have opted out of theism and they’re the ones who have to justify their position, and they’d have to do it starting out by explaining their notions of God and why they’re rejecting them.
The dark secret of theology is that it can’t do the job most people think it’s there for.
I’d always assumed a lot of theology was about looking for signs of God, like God was a Higgs-Boson or something like that. Modern theology actually has very little new to say or do concerning ‘proof God exists’ (or disproving it). And the reason is simple: within moments of starting a study of theology, it’s made clear it’s impossible to use logic to prove God exists.
We can demonstrate this in one sentence. Ahem. ‘There is, by definition, no way for us to distinguish God from a being capable of deceiving all other beings into believing it is God’. Whatever the miracle, demonstration of power, revelation, artefact or argument presented, however kind or wise ‘He’ was, we could never be sure that ‘God’ was the real deal. He wouldn’t need to be God, he would just need to be able to make us think he’s God. Even if ‘real God’ showed up with a host of angels, bellowed ‘IMPOSTER!’ and sent Jesus in to kick the false God in His nuts, then … well, what’s to say this new arrival isn’t just another imposter?
‘Fooling every human being’, presumably, would require a lot less power than ‘being God’. We’re easily fooled, after all. The overwhelming probability is that any given ‘God’ is not God. And, happily, that’s exactly what religions teach – the central proposition of most religions is that while every other one is the work of smooth conmen in it for the bling and pussy, this religion is the one, real deal. Not every human being holds the idea ‘gods exist’, but every single person holds the position ‘not all claims made about gods are true’. Indeed, if you’re looking for a ‘universal human religious belief’, then the only ones we know for certain have existed in every society are ‘sorry, not buying it’ and ‘I’m being dragged along under protest’. As the motto goes, every Christian’s an atheist when it comes to all the other gods. The early Christians in Rome were prosecuted for atheism, as they did not honour the city gods.
There have been lots of attempts at proofs, some better than others, but even the scholar responsible for the most extensive and influential attempts to come up with something compelling, Thomas Aquinas, concedes ‘to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It’s not that we haven’t found compelling logical proof God exists, Aquinas says, there simply can’t be a compelling logical proof independent of faith. And, of course, if you have faith, you’ve already answered the question you’re meant to be exploring. It explains why Aquinas’ proofs are seen as eloquent and persuasive to existing believers, but weirdly lacking to everyone else.
Theology hasn’t been able to budge from this position. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most renowned living theologians, concedes this when he says,
“I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”
So, with no evidence even possible for gods, atheism’s right?
Theist philosophers have this one covered. Plantinga adds:
“But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars … Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.”
Plantinga’s a renowned Christian theologian, he’s dedicated his life to this, he’s emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, not some internet commentator schmuck, so I’ll take him at face value, and assume that it’s a good analogy for atheism.
One problem for Plantinga is that we can answer his question about stars.
At one level, he’s right. We encounter practical problems, to put it mildly, if we try to work out if there are an odd or even number of stars. The concept of ‘the number of stars’ is problematic. It assumes that it’s clear what a star is (that there are no judgement calls to be made about whether, say, a neutron star is a star, or whether a star that’s forming counts). Critically, the speed of light limits the available information. Even if we had some pressing need to count all the stars to work out if there were an odd or even number of them, we simply can’t acquire the evidence. This limit to our information also throws up the familiar problem that what we look at in the night’s sky is not the state of the universe ‘now’. It’s scientifically illiterate to imagine we could just take a snapshot of the universe and count the dots.
However … we can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of stars, and the number of stars is a whole number. We can agree that any whole number is either odd or even. We can agree that the number of stars is, therefore, either an odd or even number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question.
We have, as far as I’m aware, no particular reason to think that there’s some law of physics governing whether there was an odd or even number of stars. There might be. Imagine the universe was and remained perfectly symmetrical. There would be, basically, two identical sets of stars. If one popped into existence on one side, another would on the opposite side. There would, by definition, be an even number of stars. As things stand, though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that is at work.
The universe is vast. Stars form and they die. So we can say with confidence that given the vastness of the universe, even in the time it takes to ask the question ‘are there an odd or even number of stars?’, the answer will alternate from ‘odd’ to ‘even’ many times – millions or billions of times, in fact. Plantinga doesn’t actually say ‘in the universe’, but even if he’s just talking about how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy, the answer will change by the time you get to the end of the question.
Let’s say what Plantinga meant to ask is ‘are there an odd or even number of observable stars in the night’s sky?’. The answer is, to Magnitude 10, with 99.9% confidence, ‘even’.
So far, so pedantic. Many theologians would just sneer at the over-literalistic answers there and say it was evidence of ‘scientism’ an arrogant belief that science can reach all the answers merely by counting and measuring. I hope so, as this would be really handy for my argument.
As a thought experiment, imagine we lived in a universe where everyone was utterly confident there were only five stars. Now try answering Plantinga’s question. ‘Do we have good evidence for the proposition that there are an odd number or even number of stars?’
Plantinga’s argument boils down to ‘sometimes it’s difficult to count stuff’, that’s all. And if, as he says, it’s an analogy for the existence of God, all he’s saying is that it’s difficult to count the number of gods.
So, let’s use the same reasoning.
We can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of gods, and the number of gods is a whole number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question ‘how many gods are there?’, the issue is simply that they’re difficult to count.
Except, by Plantinga’s own logic, it’s not difficult at all. Even if we confine ourselves to the ludicrously narrow definition of science preferred by some philosophers as ‘the study of things that can be measured’, counting falls squarely in the remit of ‘science’. As noted, logically, we can never count above zero proven gods. The empirical measurement of proven gods concurs.
Inspired by Plantinga, we could ask whether the evidence points to there being an odd or even number of gods. Is doing so really more glib than asking any other question about gods? In fact, it’s more useful than most – if there are an even number of gods, that would at least rule out monotheism and the Trinity, which wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. As it happens, zero is an even number [two multiplied by zero = zero].
So, here’s the clever bit. Plantinga – if his analogy is a good one – believes this to be a counting game, he believes that there are a fixed number of gods, and he understands that there’s no way to demonstrate by counting that there are more than zero gods. Both Plantinga and the atheist have taken measurement and logic as far as it is possible to take them, and agree they’ve reached ‘zero’ using that method, the result that atheist expected. So it’s clearly only Plantinga who needs to appeal further than this. The atheist can stop there. An atheist may also have faith, but certainly doesn’t need it. The atheist may be wrong, of course, but it’s plainly Plantinga, and not the atheist, who needs to justify his position.