God, Unicorns, and Spaghetti Monsters

I have discussed before the reasons I believe in God, and have repeatedly pointed out that no scientifically supported hypothesis on the universe yet proposed precludes the existence of God. There is one common atheistic retort that I have not yet addressed. ‘Well,’ says the atheist, ‘there is no evidence precluding the existence of unicorns either . . . so shall we believe in unicorns too?’

The most amusing variant of this argument is Bobby Henderson’s satirical deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), which he created as part of a protest against the teaching of intelligent design theory in Kansas schools. Henderson, writing in an open letter, demanded that his belief that the FSM created the universe be given equal time. Henderson’s point, shared by many in the atheist community, is that the burden of proof ought to lie with the person who makes an extraordinary claim, not with those who doubt that claim, otherwise any claim—no matter how absurd—would need to be held in equal esteem. As the brilliant Carl Sagan once put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In-and-of itself, this seems to be a perfectly logical philosophy . . . but it raises an important question. Which claims are extraordinary?

‘Obviously,’ continues our imaginary atheist, ‘the claim that the universe was created by a god is the extraordinary claim which must be supported by extraordinary evidence, and you have presented no scientifically valid evidence to support that claim.’ Okay, fair enough, except the claim that the universe poofed into existence out of nothing, as espoused by Stephen Hawking and others, is an equally extraordinary claim, and is equally unsupported by extraordinary evidence.

So, if honestly evaluated, nobody has won the argument. We have stalemated, and are likely to remain stalemated forever. Even Hawking admits, when pressed, that we will probably never be able to test his ‘creation from nothing’ hypothesis. So we each present our ideas about how the universe came to be, but neither of us can produce anything more than tenuous, circumstantial evidence to back it up. If extraordinary evidence is really required, if that is the standard by which we must judge the competing theories on creation, then atheists and theists alike must pack up their banners and go home . . . right?

But what if I told you that there is extraordinary evidence supporting one of these creation theories? It is still circumstantial, and there is plenty of room for debate about how scientifically valid it is, but it is compelling none-the-less.

Go back a few thousand years—before television and the Internet, before phones, before commonplace trade and communication between societies. If you lived in this time, you were likely well-acquainted with your own society and culture, but it was an insular one. It had little interaction with other peoples except, perhaps, a handful of those that happened to be geographically adjacent. A few hundred miles from your home might as well be another world. There were thousands of societies in this time, scattered all throughout the continents, and they all operated almost entirely independently of one another. A new idea that developed in, say, Persia would likely never reach the peoples of the Americas or Australia or sub-Saharan Africa, and would only reach the societies of Asia, Europe, and North Africa in a spotty and inconsistent way.

Yet, for all their differences, certain basic social norms developed in the vast majority of societies around the world. Societies that had never had any relationship with one another, perched on opposite ends of the globe, recognized certain basic moral laws—don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. Most recognized a permanent, monogamous, procreative union of man and woman—marriage—and afforded that union special esteem and protection. And yes, most recognized that our universe was created by a deity.

There are exceptions, of course. This kind of argument often stirs up examples of societies that practiced ritualized murder (e.g., child sacrifice), unusual sexual unions (e.g., polygamous, serial, or pederastic), and non-theistic religions or philosophies. But these exceptions, notable and interesting as they may be, don’t negate the rule. Even a society that practices child sacrifice accepts the natural law against murder; it has simply erroneously characterized one particular kind of killing as not being murder at all. Novel innovations on marriage rarely lasted very long . . . the only exceptions being those societies that reserved those innovations only to a small, special class of citizen—royalty, the rich, or those chosen by a religious leader.

These facts are evidence of the existence of natural law—universal truths that, to use the language of the Christian Church, are ‘written on our hearts.’ In other words, they are the things that we just know. Even in the absence of decrees from governments, churches, and parents, most people can discern on their own that murder is wrong. Most people can discern on their own the special importance of the union of man and woman in marriage. Most people can discern that the universe must have a creator. These are the very basic understandings of human existence that most of us don’t need to be taught because we can figure them out on our own. In fact, we have to be taught to believe that these truths aren’t true—which is becoming depressingly common these days.

Imagine if you could take a group of people, set them on a tropical island, and erase their memories but somehow leave their language skills intact. This hypothetical group would know nothing of marriage, of theology, of science, of right and wrong. There would be a period of chaos—fighting over scarce resources, violence, death. But within a few short generations, you would find once again that the hallmarks of basic civil society—the natural laws—were exerting themselves. You would find some form of law that prohibits murder and robbery, you would see monogamous married couples raising children, and, most likely, you would find people bowing and praying to one or more deities.

Natural law doesn’t come in the form of a written scripture, but as a deeply rooted, yet nebulous, human instinct. That is why the peoples of the world developed such disparate religious traditions out of it. We can debate the relative merits of the various world religions some other time, but what is important here is that your average human being just knows there is a creator. The natural law written on his heart tells him so. The vast majority of human beings all down through the centuries have known it. And when thousands of societies, made up of millions of people, independently come to the same basic conclusion . . . well . . . if that’s not extraordinary evidence, what is?

According to the 2011 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, sixty-seven percent of Americans would be uncomfortable with an atheist president—a higher percentage than those who would be uncomfortable with a Muslim (sixty-four percent), Mormon (forty-two percent), or evangelical Christian (twenty-eight percent). Personally, I don’t approve of a religious litmus test for the presidency, but I can understand why the poll results came out the way they did. An atheist—quite unlike a Muslim, Mormon, or evangelical Christian—has totally rejected one of their most fundamental human instincts. Rightly or wrongly, people wonder if somebody who outright denies one part of natural law might just as easily deny some (or all) of the other parts.

So shall we believe in unicorns too? Well, if thousands of societies all around the world independently came to believe in unicorns, then sure. But they didn’t. They came to believe in a powerful, supernatural creator: God, by one name or another. Call him the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you want; the great irony of Henderson’s satire, funny and irreverent as it is, is that it rings truer to our natural human instincts than his atheism does.

Scott Bradford has been putting his opinions on his website since 1995—before most people knew what a website was. He has been a professional web developer in the public- and private-sector for over twenty years. He is an independent constitutional conservative who believes in human rights and limited government, and a Catholic Christian whose beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. He loves Pink Floyd and can play the bass guitar . . . sort-of. He’s a husband, pet lover, amateur radio operator, and classic AMC/Jeep enthusiast.