Julian Charles, "George Carlin on "religion"—my response to Antony's email"
In one of the first few emails Antony Rotunno sent to me, he asked me to respond to George Carlin's famous comedy routine on "religion". As this email exchange came up in our conversation on "Truth Comedy", I thought I would post my response for people to see.
Sorry for the delay. I just wanted to find a bit of time to sit down and put some thoughts together properly. OK, I've listened to the Carlin clip a couple of times, so here are my thoughts:
I very much appreciate his skill as a comedian. His timing is excellent. The way he structures his jokes with verbal tensions and punchy resolutions etc. is masterful; so he gets 'full marks' from me for his art. (And, by the way, I consider comedy to be high art when it's at its best.) I am aware, of course, that he has to exaggerate and stereotype in order to make the jokes work, so I'll allow some licence. So... my response to his characterisation of 'religion':
He says religion is the worst example of "false promises and exaggerated claims." That's very vague. Which promises? Which claims? Jesus' claims? The claims of some careless preachers? But I'm guessing he means 'prayer' and 'miracle'. (I'll leave prayer until later, because he talks about that specifically.) As for miracle: he gives no reason why we should believe miracle to be impossible. If atheism is true - as he believes - then of course miracles are impossible. (But that is to assume what he's trying to prove.) But if atheism is false (as I believe) then miracles are possible. (If he's criticising those who falsely claim that miracles happen every day - well, I agree with him - that's exaggeration. But then why judge 'religion' by its worst examples?)
He says it's a "b******t story" because:
1) ...it's about an "invisible man in the sky" who "watches eveything you do every minute of every day..." Well, I don't know any Christian who thinks God is a man, or that God lives in the sky. I'm not convinced that the Bible affirms those points either. The Bible uses phenomenal language (as do we, for example, when we talk about the sun "rising" in the morning. We all know that's false, but we say it anyway). In a similar way, the Bible speaks of God as "above", and so forth, reflecting the fact that superior persons take the highest place, such as a monarch on a throne. Moreover, I note that Paul, in Acts 17:28, is happy to use philosophical language (that is not phenomenological) of God. He says of God: "in Him we live and move and have our being." So God is not "up there" in a crass, literal sense.
That God is invisible follows from His being immaterial (Spirit). I can't think Carlin disbelieved in all invisible things; did he disbelieve in quarks? information? numbers? propositions? ideas? other minds? If he believed in even one of these invisible things, he could not reasonably use invisibility as a reason for rejecting God's existence.
That God "watches" makes it sound silly - but I'll let him off that for comic effect. What theologians would say is that God knows all truths. And if God knows all truths, that entails his knowing what we do. He doesn't "find out" by looking, or sensing in any way; he just knows, because (to quote Paul again) "in him we live and move and have our being." Carlin doesn't give any reason to suppose that God cannot be omniscient.
2) ...and it's about God having 10 things he wants you to obey. Again, that makes it sound arbitrary and silly. (Well, that's his style, I know.) But, to respond: Jesus summed up all the Old Testament commandments with the advice: "Love the Lord your God with all your being, and love your neighbour as you love yourself; if you do these things, then you'll end up obeying God's laws by default." That doesn't sound silly; not to me, anyway. If we all followed that advice, the world would be a much better place. But, if Carlin had put it that way, his joke wouldn't have worked.
3) He says God sends people to hell and that it's a place of literal, fiery torment. Well, that is problematic on two counts. a) It ignores the fact that the Bible regularly uses imagery to get its message across. In this case, the fire imagery comes from the fires of the Hinnom Valley (just outside Jerusalem) where people used to sacrifice children to the 'god' Molech by letting them be burned to death. Hence, the word Gehenna (which is the word for "hell" in the Bible.) This pagan sacrificial system was condemned by God, and it came to symbolise "eternal separation from God." So, there is every reason to believe that fire (in this context) symbolises "separartion from God" rather than being literal flames. b) But even so, Carlin says God sends people into this state of separation. Well, that is a debated point in the Christian world - even among evangelicals. Many (perhaps even most) believe, as I do, that it is human beings who do the separating: we may choose to live separate from God in this life, and that state (if we continue to choose it) will continue beyond this life. It is thus a measure of the freedom God gives us. I would further add that maybe God continues to try to draw people to himself even beyond this life... but that's speculation. Whatever, I see no reason to accuse God in any of this.
Later, Carlin implies that it's deeply ironic that God "needs money." This, I'm guessing, is a criticism of the money-grabbing televangelist, or the excessive demands for money that have afflicted churches at times throughout the ages. Well, if that's what he means, then I agree. Ministry should never take more than it needs. But if people (even Christians) sometimes do take more than they should, is that God's fault? I don't see the logic there. I suppose he might mean that, if God is omnipotent, then money-raising shouldn't be necessary at all; God could just provide miraculously all the time. But that assumes a theology which I think is unbiblical and false. Typically, God works through normal means, and normal people. So he wants us to co-operate with him, and part of that co-operation will be our willingness to support reasonable ministry in this world. So again, I think Carlin's point fails.
He then suggests that God doesn't exist (or is incompetent, or amoral) because of all the evil in the world. This is a very difficult subject to deal with briefly because of its complexity, but I'll have a go. The normal way of thinking about this is to divide evils into moral evil (human wrong-doing) and natural evil (imperfection in the creation, such as disease etc.) Well, moral evil is compatible with God's existence (God being competent and good etc.), because our having the choice to do right or wrong is a good in itself. (Otherwise we would be robots.) If we choose to misuse that choice, is that God's fault? Some have argued that God could ensure that we always do the right thing. But is it logically possible to make persons who are truly free, and yet who are guaranteed to behave in a certain way? I don't think so. I think we are made truly free moral creatures (not robots) who are capable of love/good, hate/evil - and that God takes the risk that we will sometimes choose the latter.
As for natural evil, the Bible's view on this is that it is connected with human sin. That is not easy to see, but that doesn't mean it's false. The teaching is contained in the allegory of the Fall of Man in Genesis 3, which essentially teaches that the imperfections of the world are the consequence of human rebellion against God. Although, in the allegory, the connection is presented as a historical consequence - eating the 'fruit' (not an apple!) and then suffering the consequences - the consequence is really a logical one. The imperfections of the world (natural evils) are the logical consequence of human evil. On this understanding, right from the beginning of Creation God foreknew the wrong-doing of every person who would ever live, and formed a Creation suitable for such persons to live in; not a perfect world, but one in which the imperfections of life would engender a longing for the true source of satisfaction - God himself. (Then there is a whole set of questions about the unfair distribution of evils in this world, but that's a long philosophical discussion... that's the work of theodicy, which I leave you to go and read about. Peter van Inwagen has done good work on that.) The point is, the whole question about evil and God's existence is much, much more complicated than Carlin realises.
He then implies that prayer is pointless because of the Divine Plan. Here he seems to be criticising a certain brand of theology known as theological fatalism, which teaches that God's control over all events is absolute. In that case, I think Carlin's right. But, again, I have met very few who believe this. Some hyper-Calvinists claim to, but they don't live according to that belief. My own view is that God does have a Plan, but there is a good deal of flexibility to that Plan. Within that flexibility, prayer can influence God's decisions. One might argue that God's foreknowledge means that nothing can be changed. But, under a theological understanding called Molinism (which I hold to), God's foreknowledge actually consists (in part) of the very free-will decisions we make in this life, so he can plan with our decisions in mind - in which case he can even turn bad things to his advantage. On this understanding, our prayers were known by God from the beginning, which means he was able to factor them into the decisions he made with respect to his Plan.
He also says prayer is answered, in his experience, at a 50/50 rate - 50% yes, 50% no - and that that is no better than praying in a Voodoo context etc. On the face of it, I have to say that achieving 50% Yes is very impressive! If, every time you prayed for something - say, a BMW, a mansion, a world cruise - you got a Yes answer 50% of the time, that would be very impressive! But, I know, he doesn't really mean that - that's comedic rhetoric. I guess he means that the thing prayed for sometimes happens, sometimes doesn't, that the pattern of results is random, and that any supernatural belief system would yield similar results. Well, there are a few problems here. First, he doesn't justify that comment with any evidence. Is it really true that praying to God and wishing upon a rabbit's foot yield statistically similar results? Why should I believe that? Second, he fails to recognise that biblical prayer is centred in relationship. God's promise to answer prayer is based upon our entering into a personal relationship with him whereby our desires are increasingly conformed to his desires. Thus, if you pray for a Rolls-Royce, that probably indicates that you don't share God's priorities on things - so why should he answer you... except with a No? Third, he forgets that No, and Not Yet, are also answers.
He then makes a joke about the superiority of sun worship, which of course he is just using for effect. But he does stress the point that he can see the sun, and that that helps a lot with belief. The implication, again, is that if you can't see something it's irrational to believe in its existence. I mentioned before that this is obviously false: I cannot, in principle, ever see a quark, but that gives me no reason whatever to suppose that quarks don't exist. But further: If God exists, he must be invisible. If he were visible, then he would be a material object - just another 'thing' alongside all the other 'things' that make up physical reality. But that would mean that he was not the Creator of all 'things' - and thus, not God. God therefore must, necessarily, be invisible. That's not say he cannot make himself known to our senses in various ways if he so chooses - but in such cases we are still not seeing him as he really is, because that would be impossible. In biblical cases where God is said to have been seen, the description generally goes along the lines of seeing the 'likeness of the glory of God', or some such... which makes sense.
Finally, he tests God with the request to strike everyone present dead on the spot. God fails that test, and so in his view that just serves to make his point again. But that of course assumes that God would wish to kill everyone present. It seems to me much more likely that God would wish to go on working in those people's lives throughout the rest of their days in order to draw them to himself. Therefore God has a good reason not to strike everyone down. Also, why should God respond to that test anyway? That would put Mr. Carlin in the driving seat: whatever Mr. Carlin demands, God must do. I see no reason why God would take any notice of this.
Anyway, Antony, those are my thoughts. You're right, I wasn't offended by Mr. Carlin; I just felt sorry for the audience who were swept along with fallacy after fallacy. But, as I say, I think he was a master of his art.
Once again, thanks for asking for my views, and sorry for taking such a long time about it.