The Jehovah's Witnesses returned once again last week, just as I was heading out the door. Two middle-aged women appeared at the gate in agreeably beige coats, bearing up against the last of the winter chill, and probably a few frosty receptions before they got to me. I wasn't much in the mood, but I had sort of looked forward to meeting them again and debating with them about various theological inconsistencies. Also, despite their wonky beliefs, they were genuinely pleasant people who thought they were making a positive impact in the world, so I gave them some of my time.
The usual openers of how there was so much evil in the world wasn't heading in a particularly interesting direction (I fail to see how such a committed theist can acknowledge a situation where evil - usually blamed on the devil - can exist and perpetuate with a supposed perfect, capable and loving god watching over us), so I steered things towards the subject of the creation, figuring these people were most likely creationists. I asked them what their opinion of ancient fossils were.
'We believe that the universe is only a few thousand years old', one said.
'God created us and everything on the planet', said the other.
I've pondered the ability of these statements to stand on their own feet for a while now. It asks questions about god's motives when the world is made to look much older than what it apparently is (suggesting a deceit) but also queries another aspect of an all powerful being: intelligence.
Many well-structured arguments against creation are stopped in their tracks by the twin put-downs of 'who are we to question gods ways' and 'we are human; we cannot comprehend his big plan'. When not using those little sidesteps, any reasoning along the lines of creation of the earth in seven days ultimately leads to god existing outside of time, and so can achieve anything. This got me thinking.
'How intelligent is God?', I asked.
The ladies stood there for a moment and pondered my question. I assured them I wasn't trying to lure them into a trap. Turning to one of the women I asked (as politely as possible) how intelligent she thought she was.
'Reasonably', she said, guardedly.
And so I began my argument. It went something like this:
Imagine for a moment, that you are really passionate about building model aeroplanes. You have loads of them in your house, and you take great care over the building and painting of each one, so they are as perfect as they can be. Now imagine that you are suddenly tasked with building 10,000 model aircraft. Each of the same design. No matter how much you loved doing it, you wouldn't want to do 10,000 and you would be sick of them if you made it to the end.
This is because you are an intelligent person; and repetitive tasks - no matter how much fun they might be at the start - become tiresome.
Now scale that up. Instead of one model aircraft, you have a million different kinds, of all shapes and sizes, made up of different parts and substances and complexities, and each model type has between 1 and a trillion models to be made. And you have to repeat the task for all eternity.
This is the work that God apparently has to do. Or rather, it's the work that he has apparently foisted upon himself, being the ultimate creator of our universe and all within it.
It was obvious by now the analogy I was trying to make, but as I suspected, the ladies would argue the wrong point away.
'But God exists outside of time', one said, 'he can create any number of beings in a blink of an eye'.
I countered; 'Well, even if we could somehow accept such a claim, it is God's intelligence that proves your creation theory false. I repeat: how intelligent do you think God is?'.
The women realised anything less than infinite intelligence would doom them to be pushed into a pit of hell or something, so I took their stares as an implicit answer.
A being of infinite, - or even merely super-human - intelligence is not going to lumber himself with such a repetitive system. Regardless of whether he can make time to do it or not, the constant repetition required would make him a prisoner of his own work.
'Don't think you are doing your God a disservice by claiming a system of creation so short-minded that he would trap himself in this way?', I asked to no audible reply.
A being of even reasonable intelligence, at the point where he was planning the universe he was about to create, would contemplate the consequences of any road he goes down. Rather than lumbering himself with the task of creating and re-creating life over and over for all eternity - and we are assuming the earth is the only place in the massive universe that this is happening - wouldn't it be far more practical to create a single spark of life, imbue it with the ability to mutate and reproduce, and then set it free in a quiet corner of the universe to do it's thing all on it's own, and watch as it grows and develops.
Though I do not go for the idea of a God as the ultimate source of all things, we know so little about the origins of the universe prior to the big bang, that a giant celestial experimenter kicking things off and then lying back and observing the results is as good as any we are going to get in the near future. And what a beautiful idea; one that fits with our knowledge of evolutionary history and biology, of fossil records and of the origins of the universe, of the destruction and rebirth of worlds and galaxies as they collide in the chaos, and the danger and savagery of animal survival.
But it also allows the ones who want to believe in a god to have one - the guy who had the forethought to put it all into action. Such a deity who was the creator of the universe and all the beauty deserves a bit of respect, and if as some posit, he is just lying back and observing the results - however they turn out - as a scientist would, then there is also no need to consider him to be the presiding judge of our actions because in his experiment we are all part of the results whatever they may be. Morality and behaviour - that is down to us.
The women had by this point begun to glance at their watches, and since I had made my point, I let them leave; they said they found what I had to say 'interesting', although it is unlikely they would be leaving the secure and comforting bosom of their alpha course just yet. Hopefully however, I may have sown a couple of seeds of doubt.
Some atheists may see this as a soft line, keeping God in the mix, but I don't see any profit to be had by trying to force people who don't want to let go of God to do so. The universe is so vast and we are so minuscule within it, that our tiny lives would be of no concern to a higher being; and so really, it makes no difference for our salvation whether we believe in one or not. What is important (as I have said in the past and would guess any caring god would agree), is that we are properly educated, and throw off those beliefs which are obviously, demonstrably wrong, beliefs that waste lives and sometimes cause harm when they are forcibly applied. If an argument that acknowledges the possibility of a remote God while steering them away from these standpoints can be persuasive enough to satisfy both what they see and want to believe, that's good enough for me.