The Writing on the Moon Argument

Free sample chapter from 12 Common Atheist Arguments (refuted) by Malcolm McLean

This argument goes: "If God exists, why doesn't He write in huge letters on the Moon 'Hello, I'm God, and I'm a Tridentine rite Roman Catholic (or Baptist, or Jew or whatever)'. An omnipotent being should be able to do that, and it would clear up a lot of problems."

It should immediately be apparent that this is connected to the "no evidence" argument. If God exists, He is a fundamental feature, indeed the fundamental feature, of the universe. Why then is His presence not obvious? Why is atheism tenable as a philosophical position?

Most atheists, however usually spoil their case. As we can guess from the tone of the "writing on the Moon" argument, they usually disbelieve in God but add that for good measure certain Christian teachings are wicked. The disfavoured teachings vary slightly from decade to decade, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century usually focus on sexuality. Abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex and divorce are all held as necessary and legitimate choices, even if not always as desirable. Organised religious activities are also seen as boring and a waste of time. The institutional church is often held up to contempt.

These atheists frequently have some fairly definite ideas about the type of society they want to see, and almost always the Church does not feature on the list of favoured institutions. The last thing they want, therefore, is this type of intervention from a divine being. God gives us the freedom to come to our own conclusions. If we are going to experiment with homosexual marriages, as is being currently proposed, then so be it.

The primacy of human freedom has acquired an important place in Christian apologetics, but it is important to note that the concept does not appear in the Bible, nor in early tradition. In fact it is only in unusual historical circumstances, such as in the first century Roman Empire and in the twentieth century West, that it is possible for someone to choose his religion. The peasant farmer cannot opt out of the village harvest festival. The modern West is also unusual in that there is no consensus amongst the ruling elite on religious matters. Some are Christians, some are atheists, and there are religious and secular Jews. Almost every other society has an established religion to which every significant intellectual belongs. We mistake our current situation for normality.

In the Middle Ages, Europe was Christian and the Catholic church had largely unchallenged political power. However the result was not a utopia. Despite the lack of technology, in many ways medieval life was much better than life today. There were regular feast days providing the pretext for a holiday, everyone got Sunday off, men drank several pints of beer a day, there was no venereal disease, few single parent families, everyone knew his neighbours. Most of this was attributable to the church. There were few ideological disputes, but there were still wars between nobles about personal affronts. Conduct was governed by the laws of chivalry, but this didn't totally prevent atrocities. The assumption in the "writing on the Moon" argument that being governed by a wise and true religion will automatically remove human deficiencies is not true. It merely removes one source of problems, just as democracy removes the problems of unaccountable leadership, but doesn't lead to a perfect political system.

There is a deeper sense in which freedom is necessary. Consider this argument. "God is perfectly good and omnipotent. A prayer is only worthwhile if it makes things better than before. However a perfectly good and omnipotent being has already arranged things as well as possible. Therefore prayer cannot improve things. Therefore prayer is not worthwhile." Prayer could be replaced by any human activity, which shows up the weakness of the argument. Zookeepers who look after chimpanzees have found that if, instead of giving the animals their food in a bowl, it is tied to trees and hidden in various locations around the enclosure, welfare is improved. If action leads to no consequences, there is no freedom, so a wise and loving creator arranges things so that actions do have consequences. If you don't try to obtain food, you will go hungry. If you don't pray, prayers won't be answered.

Now let us imagine that Jesus, after the resurrection, had walked into the Capitol in Rome and demanded that the Emperor worship Him as a god. Certainly the Romans would have complied. However what would that have proven? Only that if you are immune to capital punishment then you can make whatever demands you want. It would just have been a rather gentler version of the twelve legions of angels rejected in Gethsemane.

In the event Jesus was eventually worshipped by the Roman Emperor as a god. However the change didn't come about through direct intervention from God, but by three hundred years of steady evangelising efforts by Christians. There were setbacks, internal disputes, and human failings. Many Christians became martyrs, others were cowards; a lot would have done hard unglamorous work for the church, such as putting up St Paul for the night, others would have left this to other people. But ultimately the church succeeded. Starting with twelve ordinary Jewish men, Jesus brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Now every Christian who was alive before the conversion of Constantine in 300AD contributed in some way to that achievement, and can take justifiable pride. Moreover, it was not brought about by military force, but by the transparent superiority of Christian ethics over the Roman cults of Venus and of Mars. Jesus won the moral as well as the practical argument.

The "writing on the Moon" argument tends to assume that, if God just reveals Himself, then all problems will be solved. However God must reveal Himself as He is, not as He is not. The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness, and then complained that it became boring. The apostles had Jesus with them for a period of maybe three years, and saw many signs and wonders. However Peter still denied his master, Judas still betrayed Jesus. The presence of God, even in a very tangible way, does not automatically override a human will, nor does it bring automatic happiness. There is no reason to assume that dramatic miracles will have any long-term effect on behaviour.

The Pope deals with the "writing on the Moon" argument in the book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (In the section titled, "If God exists, why is He hiding"). The Pope's argument is that God has revealed too much, rather than too little, of Himself, because the Christian revelation is of a man on the cross, and the human spirit protests at such an extreme expression of love.

It is easy to see how this has happened. Imagine a father who works twelve-hour shifts as a dustbin man so that his son can go to a private school. When the son grows to adolescence, and is dressed in a smart uniform, articulate, has many school friends from comfortable middle-class backgrounds, and has ambitions to become a lawyer, is it not likely that he will be ashamed of his father? He will forget that, but for the work with the dustbins, he would have gone to the local sink comprehensive and become a manual labourer himself.

Muslims reject the crucifixion. Islamic teaching is that Jesus, when He said, "This is my body, which I give to you" gave His physical body to Judas, to suffer the pains of crucifixion in His stead. It is also quite common to hear Jews declare that they can never believe in a god who comes down from heaven and is crucified. However for Christians it is the central image of our faith. This is what God became incarnate to do, not to rule in splendour but to bear the brunt of human hatred and political machinations. The cross is a profound mystery, because as well as the greatest evil it is also in some way the greatest good. Jesus pronounces the words "It is accomplished", more meaningful in the Latin "consummatus est", whilst still alive and suffering. The disciples James and John ask for places on Jesus's right and left hands, when He comes into His kingdom. Jesus replies that they do not know what they are asking for, and the places have been allotted. At the end of Mark's gospel, the mystery is revealed - the two places are given to the two thieves. In John's gospel, three women are at the foot of the cross, all called Mary, a virgin, a mother, and a whore. It is obvious that this is an allusion to the triple goddess. It is equally obvious that the evangelist is unaware of that fact. These are things which are only hinted at, and it is likely that the full truth of what the cross means is too much for humans to bear. The Pope's argument is not some specious justification.

Why isn't God so obvious that He keeps popping up in scientific equations? I suspect that this is an artefact of our current state of knowledge. In earlier times there was no explanation for the motion of the planets, nor for biology, so it was natural to attribute everything to the creator. For instance it was thought that God personally opened and closed every flower each day. Nowadays, though the mechanisms of plant movement are exceedingly complex, we reject that kind of explanation. We look for reasons associated with light sensitive cells at the base of the petals instead. The modern sciences can be thought of as a hierarchy of increasing levels of organisation, with physics at the base, chemistry and biology in the middle, and the social sciences at the top. We are very successful in explaining the middle, but the very base and the very top are still shrouded in mystery. We have two fundamental physical theories, relativity and quantum mechanics, that have resisted unification. We don't have any theory of consciousness, free will, or language. Most intriguingly, it seems that the fundamental problems at the very top of the scientific ladder may be connected with the theoretical difficulties at the base. Now theologians are mainly concerned with the fundamentals of creation, whether the universe has a beginning and an end, whether matter obeys laws, and with the human condition, what it means to be a man. They are not too interested with the middle, such as which particular chemical bonds are more stable, or how insects manage to regulate their body temperatures. In other words, the areas of science of theological interest are precisely those areas which are least understood. This does not prove that God exists, but it suggests that the absence of theology from science may be a consequence of knowing the middle, but not the extremes.

To answer the "writing on the Moon" argument we do not have to explain everything that God does, and understand the reason for every action. Ultimately we do not need to know why the twelve legions of angels were rejected in favour of the cross, or why prayers are not always answered with an unambiguous demonstration of God's presence. All we need to do is to show that God's actions are reasonable, that there is some plausible explanation for the failure of writing to appear on the Moon other than that the writer does not exist.