Thursday, May 23, 2024


The Cartoon Universe of Theism

by Dawson Bethrick

  1. The Cartoon Universe of Theism
  2. The ‘God’s Good Pleasure’ Principle and the Cartoon Universe Premise
  1. Omnipotence and Sovereignty in the Cartoon Universe


    The Cartoon Universe of Theism

    After examining many arguments offered by presuppositional apologists and considering the general view of the world that they want to defend and impart to others, I cannot help but see the formidable parallels between, on the one hand, the god they claim exists and the reality they say it created, and, on the other, an illustrator and the cartoons he draws.

    Christians imagine that the universe is the product of a devising mind, just as a cartoon is the product of a devising illustrator. Just as the shapes we perceive in a cartoon conform to the content of the mind of the illustrator, the entities and their actions in the universe are thought to conform to the content of a consciousness whose initial state is consciousness only of itself. The illustrator, for purposes of entertainment, draws an imaginary realm where fifty-ton boulders fall on Wile E. Coyote, crushing him flat as a pancake only to have him crawl out from underneath it and shake himself off so he can proceed with his pursuit of the Roadrunner. Likewise the theist imagines a supernatural illustrator who wishes the universe into existence and controls it just as ably as it controls its own thoughts. The contents of the universe conform to the thoughts of the divine consciousness just as the scenes of a cartoon conform to the imagination of the illustrator.

    But beyond this, significant differences begin to emerge. Where the cartoon illustrator is only seeking artful entertainment and whatever compensation the market will bear for it, theists want to take their savagely more perverse analogue very seriously, and they want you to take it seriously, too. And where the cartoon illustrator understands that the realms he creates in his drawings are just fantasy and play, theists have rendered themselves intellectually incompetent when it comes to distinguishing between reality and their imagination. And it is this blurring between fantasy and reality that inspires the hideous ideas which give Christianity, like other religions, its lethal nature as a worldview. It is this view of reality, the cartoon universe of theism, that presuppositionalists seek to defend. Only it’s not funny. What’s more is that they tell us that we must presuppose that things are this way ? that the universe is essentially a cartoon realm created by a boundless consciousness no one can perceive ? in order to make sense of the world and our experience in it.

    But there is a distinction between reality and our fantasies. How could anyone think that reason and rationality are based on the theist?s perverse confusion of the two? The universe is not at all like a cartoon. An entity is itself, and its actions have a necessary relationship to its nature. Facts do not change because someone wants them to, and wishing doesn?t make it so. It is this hard reality that the theist finds depressing and, unable to cope, he seeks to evade it by retreating into a set of bizarre notions that disable his ability to make very important distinctions.

    If you should ever find yourself in a debate with a presuppositionalist, point out to him that he is basically trying to defend the view that the universe is essentially nothing more than a cartoon. Ask him how seriously he takes the teachings of the bible, especially those attributed to Jesus in the gospel stories. Many of these teachings unmistakably confer this cartoon-like quality to the universe. For instance, Matthew 17:20 reads: “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.” Ask him if he really believes that Mt. McKinley is going to do what he wishes, or if he thinks such verses are to be taken as obvious hyperbole that no one should take literally. If he says the former, that indeed his wish-laden prayers can cause such devastation, his case is pathological, and there?s probably nothing you can do for him. If he concedes that such bible passages should be taken as figurative exaggeration, then ask him if the stories about the creation of the earth and heaven, the talking snake in the Garden of Eden, the worldwide flood, the seven plagues of Egypt, and Jesus? resurrection are also to be taken as exaggeration. The intention here is to smoke out and expose the lunacy of god-belief, for surely it is there, and it needs to be driven out. The light of reason is the only tool necessary for this, for in it the absurd cannot camouflage itself.


    The “God’s Good Pleasure” Principle and the Cartoon Universe Premise

    When a cartoon illustrator draws his scenes, he is in a sense playing the part of a god: he determines which characters will be cast in his cartoon; he determines what they say and what they do; he determines the setting in which they interact; he determines all outcomes that will transpire in the story he paints. He can make gravity reverse itself, he can make water turn into ice instantly, he can make human beings fly through the air like birds or even soar like jet airplanes, or make them breathe water, sustain injuries which would kill a real human being instantly, only to get up and continue on as if nothing happened. He can do whatever he pleases. Anything that constrains him is external to the cartoon itself, such as his ability as an illustrator, his need for sleep, his lack of time or materials, his contract with his employer, etc.

    In regard to its implications as an analogue to the theistic view of the universe, this aspect of the cartoon universe premise of theism raises a topical question: Is the supreme being that Christians praise and worship constrained, as man is, by any facts over which it has no control? Or, is this supreme being free to pursue whatever whim might catch his fancy?

    Psalm 115:3 answers this question:

    “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.”

    The notion that a consciousness which allegedly has no physical body can experience pleasure, is certainly bizarre. But it appears that the author of this verse, and those who believe it, take it for granted that such a notion is somehow sensible, and are willing to ignore the nature of pleasure as we know it in order to affirm such strange ideas.

    Regardless, an analysis of the metaphysics behind the Christian god’s capacity for pleasure while having no body was not what the author of this verse was trying to provide. In fact, I would find it rather dubious to suppose its author were even capable of such an analysis. Rather, the author?s point was that there is an invisible magic being whose will holds metaphysical primacy over everything else, and that its pleasure is its one and only guide to action. That is, according to this view, reality is subject to the Christian god?s whim.

    Christians often protest this obvious recognition, insisting that their god is neither arbitrary nor capricious, that its choices and actions are “rational.” (I kid you not, many have in fact claimed this.) But given their descriptions of their god, such a position is untenable. For one?s choices and actions to be evaluated as rational in nature, they would have to be made on the basis of objective facts which define an actor?s goals. Rational action is at minimum action that is goal-oriented, whose goal is objective in nature (i.e., based on relevant facts). The Christian god, however, if it existed, would lack any such objective reference point (everything other than itself was allegedly created by it to begin with), and it could have no goals whatsoever (since goal-orientedness presupposes personal needs which the supposed being that Christians describe could not have – it is said to be perfect and lacking nothing already). Thus when the apologist makes the claim that his god is ?rational,? he commits the fallacy of the stolen concept ? i.e., making use of a concept while denying its genetic roots.

    Notice how the Christian worldview and the statements of its defenders imply the cartoon universe premise. Take the words of Greg Bahnsen for instance. On pages 225-226 of his book Always Ready, he writes the following:

    According to Scripture’s account, God is the transcendent and almighty Creator of heaven and earth. Everything owes its very existence and character to His creative power and definition (Gen. 1; Neh. 9:6; Col. 1:16-17). He makes things the way they are and determines that they function as they do. “His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). Moreover, God sovereignly governs every event that transpires, determining what, when, where, and how anything takes place ? from the movement of the planets to the decrees of kings to the very hairs on our heads (Eph. 1:11). According to the Bible, He is omnipotent and in total control of the universe. Isaiah 40 celebrates in famous phraseology the creation, delineating, direction, providence, and power of Jehovah (vv. 12, 22-28). He has the freedom and control over the created order that the potter has over the clay (Rom. 9:21). As the Psalmist affirms, “Our God is in the heavens; He has done whatsoever He pleased” (Ps. 115:3).

    As if tailor-made as a proof-text validating my cartoon universe analogy, Bahnsen cites Romans 9:21, which reads:

    Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

    Had the author of Romans lived today, he would surely have been more accurate to his worldview if he incorporated the cartoonist and hsi work into his metaphor, for a potter is far too limited to serve as a fitting analogue for the Christian?s god. A potter, for instance, cannot make a pot that talks; but a cartoonist can make anything talk, such as talking rabbits (e.g., Bugs Bunny), talking ducks (e.g., Donald and Daffy), even talking cars (e.g., Speed Racer). Surely the author of Romans thought his god could make such things as the talking snake in the Garden of Eden and Balaam?s talking ass. After all, in Always Ready, pp. 109-110, Bahnsen asks in regard to his god, ?He could even make the stones cry out, couldn?t He?? Apparently Bahnsen would have to think that his god could make stones cry out, for the book of Habakkuk is affirmed as ?Scripture,? and in reporting God?s own pronouncements, Habakkuk 2:11 states: ?For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.? A potter could not make ceramic vessels which sing; but a cartoonist can.

    Similarly, a potter could not make a pot with superhuman strength; but a cartoonist can make anything with superhuman strength. A potter could not make a pot that can fly through the air on a broomstick; but a cartoonist can make anything fly on a broomstick. A potter could not make a pot that walks through walls; but a cartoonist could make the potter and all his siblings walk through walls. A potter could not make a pot that walks on water; but a cartoonist make anything walk or even dance on water. A potter could not make a pot that dies by means of crucifixion and three days later is resurrected; but a cartoonist make anything die from crucifixion and raise it up in a sequel.

    So the paragraph quoted from Bahnsen?s book above, should really look like this:

    According to the law of identity, the Cartoonist and his art are the perfect real-life analogue to Christianity?s notion of its god and the relationship Christians say it has to the universe. Everything in a cartoon owes its very shape and color to the Cartoonist?s creative power and definition. The Cartoonist makes the images in his cartoons the way they are and determines the actions that they perform. Moreover, the Cartoonist sovereignly governs every event that transpires in his cartoons, determining what, when, where, and how anything takes place ? from the movement of a pink panther to the decrees of a sarcastic rabbit to the very hairs on Porky Pig?s chin. According to the law of causality, the Cartoonist is omnipotent and in total control of his cartoons. Disney?s Animator?s Yearbook celebrates in famous phraseology the creativity, delineating, direction, providence and power of the Cartoonist. He has the freedom and control over his cartoons that the potter has over the clay. As a pop singer might put it, ?The Cartoonist is in the driver?s seat; He has done whatsoever He pleased.?

    So contrary to what those sympathetic to Christianity might feel in reaction to my discovery, the cartoon universe analogy is far from an instance of gratuitous ridicule. In fact, it exquisitely captures the essence of what theism generally teaches in a simple analogy that exposes the hideous absurdity of theistic ideas.


    Omnipotence and Sovereignty in the Cartoon Universe

    Christians love to say their god is “sovereign.” Bahnsen, for instance, writes of “God?s all-controlling sovereignty” (Van Til?s Apologetic: Reading & Analysis, p. 122n.106). And by this they generally mean that whatever their god wants, their god gets. I.e., its say-so is sufficient to bring about any outcome it desires, for its say-so is final and ultimately authoritative, and omnipotence is the power which makes this happen.

    Enter now the Cartoon Universe of Theism. The theist is truly caught between a rock and a hard place here. If he affirms that his god can do in the universe what a cartoonist can do in his cartoons, then he confirms the appropriateness of the cartoon universe analogy and thus should not try to resist it. But if he denies that his god can do the things that a cartoonist can do in his cartoons, then he?s essentially saying that the cartoonist can do things that his god cannot do. But of course this would violate the principle of divine sovereignty.

    Many Christians of course will still resent it when non-believers point out that the theistic view of the universe essentially amounts to the view that it is nothing more than a cartoon. So here are some questions readers might ask themselves to determine whether or not they really do ascribe to the cartoon universe premise of theism. Any “yes” answer to one of these questions affirms endorsement of the cartoon universe premise; a “no” answer affirms either that one is an atheist, or, if he thinks he is a theist, that he thinks his god is impotent.

    • Can your god create something ex nihilo (i.e., without using materials that already exist)?
    • Can your god create a water-breathing man?
    • Can your god create green snow?
    • Can your god create red grass?
    • Can your god create flowers that speak Mandarin Chinese?
    • Can your god create a human being with 42 arms?
    • Can your god create a woman who gives birth to elephants?
    • Can your god create a teacup that dances with a spoon?
    • Can your god create a second moon to orbit the earth?
    • Can your god remove all salinity from the world’s oceans?
    • Can your god create a biological organism which requires no nutrients or oxygen to live?
  • And so on…

    Notice that these questions are not like the age-old “Can God create a square circle,” for even a cartoonist would be stumped by such a challenge. But a cartoonist can do all these things in the context of a cartoon. He can make things suddenly pop into existence, or create a man who breathes underwater, or make green snow or red grass, etc. He can do all these things. Christians who claim that their deity is “omnipotent” will likely want to affirm that it can do all these things if it wants to. This puts their god on a par with the cartoonist, and its creations on a par with the cartoonist’s cartoons. Those who urge us to believe these things essentially urge us to believe that the universe is like a cartoon: conforming completely to someone’s wishes and designs. If a person truly believes these bizarre notions, why would he resent being identified as an adherent to the cartoon universe premise?

    In the final analysis, it all boils down to this: Either you believe the universe is like a cartoon in the hands of a master illustrator (theism), or you don?t (atheism).

    I don’t believe the universe is like a cartoon, so that makes me an atheist.

    Last updated: April, 2005