A Coherent Definition of a God
By Kyle Butt, M. Div.
Renowned atheistic spokesperson, Dan Barker, has been debating the existence of God for over two decades. One of his favorite assertions is that no one can coherently define God. Since, he claims, no one can define God, we should conclude that there is an extremely high probability that God does not exist. In my debate with him on God’s existence, two minutes and four seconds into his opening speech, he stated: “There’s no coherent definition of a God. How can we debate something that we can’t even define? God is defined as a spirit, but what is that?” He admitted that this argument does not disprove God, but he claimed that it makes the idea of God so unlikely and improbable that we should simply “round up” and disbelieve in God (Butt and Barker, 2009).
As with many of Barker’s other statements, his “no coherent definition” idea is simply an assertion that seems plausible only until it is critically analyzed in light of sound reasoning. First, God can be defined in such a way that brilliant men and women for thousands of years have been able to intelligently discuss God’s attributes, existence, and qualities? In fact, the vast majority of standard dictionaries give a working definition that most third-graders understand. For instance, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives the following definition for “God”: 1. “the supreme or ultimate reality: as a: the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe” (2009). The American Heritage Dictionary’s primary definition of “God” is: “1. God a. A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions” (2000, p. 753). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, a massive volume of almost 3,000 pages, defines “God” as: “the supreme or ultimate reality: the Deity variously conceived in theology, philosophy, and popular religion: as a (1): the holy, infinite, and eternal spiritual reality presented in the Bible as the creator, sustainer, judge, righteous sovereign, and redeemer of the universe who acts with power in history carrying out his purpose…” (1993, p. 973).
So coherent, in fact, is the definition of God that it is absent from books such as The New York Times’ Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, Mispronounced Words (1972). The term “God” is defined in every major dictionary, it is absent from the books that compile words that are difficult to understand, and the term has been used in meaningful conversation for thousands of years since the dawn of humanity. In order for a person to say that God cannot be coherently defined, he would need to change the meanings of the words “coherent” or “defined.” The fact that the term “God” is included in this article, and the reader can differentiate it from all the other concepts and terms being discussed, goes a long way to proving that the term can be meaningfully defined.
But let us dig deeper into Barker’s assertion and deal with another idea he presents. Barker has a problem with the term “spirit,” and he claims that no one knows exactly what a spirit is. Thus, he suggests, God cannot be something that no one can explain. In answer to Barker’s assertion, we could simply give another list of dictionary definitions of the word “spirit.” The Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary gives several meanings of the word, including: “1: an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms” or “4: the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person” (2009). A lengthy list of dictionary definitions would most likely bore the reader, but it would show that the term “spirit” is used in common parlance, easily understood, and discussed.
The idea that Barker seems to be presenting, then, is not that people have a difficult time defining or discussing terms like “God” or “spirit.” Barker seems to be indicating that since everybody’s definition of a “spirit” is not identical, and since we do not know everything about a “spirit,” then the concept must be unproductive. Of course, if we eliminate all the concepts that we do not unanimously agree upon or that we do not completely understand, our discussions would be extremely limited. For instance, in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins attempted to define the word “gene,” but he noted: “My definition will not be to everyone’s taste, but there is no universally agreed definition of gene” (2006, p. 28, emp. added). Charles Darwin himself, when discussing the term “species” (which term was in the title of his most famous book) wrote: “Nor shall I here discuss the various definitions which have been given of the term species. No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species” (1860, p. 38, emp. added). Quotes like these two could be multiplied and are sufficient to show that there need not be unanimous agreement about a term in order for it to have meaning.
Furthermore, it would be impossible to limit our vocabulary to concepts that are completely and fully understood. Can we use words that describe things that we do not totally understand? Indeed, not only is it permissible, but it is commonly practiced by all. For instance, in his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins stated: “Nobody has yet invented the mathematics for describing the total structure and behaviour of such an object as a physicist, or even of one of his cells. What we can do is understand some of the general principles of how living things work, and why they exist at all” (1996, p. 3, emp. added). Notice that Dawkins admits that we cannot fully understand and describe a single cell, but that does not stop us from defining its generalities and using them to discuss the concept of a “cell.” In Robert Hazen’s series, Origins of Life, he has an entire lecture titled “What is Life?” In that lecture, he attempted to define the term “life,” but he noted that he had seen at least 48 definitions, “Yet, remarkably, no two definitions are the same” (2005, p. 49). He further stated: “As you can imagine, scientists crave an unambiguous definition of life. Such a definition remains elusive” (p. 50). Hazen quipped that many scientists are “loath to draw too narrow a definition [of life—KB] in our present state of ignorance” (p. 51, emp. added); “I would argue that scientists in the early 21st century are in the same boat [as those in the 18th century—KB]—no position to define life…. To summarize this lecture, there is no simple answer to the question, ‘What is life?’” (p. 58). Using Barker’s line of reasoning in light of Dr. Hazen’s lecture on life, there must be no such thing as life, since we do not have a definition upon which all scientists agree. As you can see, such a conclusion is irrational. Furthermore, Barker and the scientific community have no qualms discussing ideas such as dark matter, dark energy, and black holes, even though these concepts cannot be accurately defined.
DEFINING “SPIRIT” POSITIVELY
In the cross-examination section of our debate, Barker asked me what a spirit is. I stated that a spirit is a “non-physical, incorporeal mind.” He responded by saying, “But that doesn’t answer the question. You told us what it is not. You said it is non-corporeal, non-physical. But positively, what is a spirit?” (2009). Notice that my definition included the positive concept of a spirit being a mind. Barker conveniently focused on the words “non-physical” and “incorporeal,” but intentionally ignored the definition of spirit as a mind. Barker refuses to deal with the concept of an immaterial mind because he is a materialist. In his debate with Peter Payne, Barker stated: “We are natural creatures. The natural world is all there is” (2005). What Barker means by the term “natural” is: “composed of physical matter.” His atheistic philosophy will not allow him to admit that there is anything other than matter. This false, materialistic assumption is his fundamental problem with the term “spirit.” It has been shown extensively and definitely, however, that humans possess an immaterial, rational mind that cannot be relegated to mere physical matter (see Harrub and Thompson, 2004; Thompson and Harrub, 2004). The mere fact that you can read, comprehend, analyze, and assess Barker’s assertion proves that something immaterial is at play.
Incidentally, Barker’s assertion that negative terms cannot be used to give positive meaning to something is vacuous. In his book godless, Barker gives a lengthy definition of what he believes the term “atheism” means. He stated: “It turns out that atheism means much less than I had thought. It is merely the lack of theism. It is not a philosophy of life and it offers no value…. [T]o be an atheist, you don’t need any positive philosophy at all…. Basic atheism is not a belief” (p. 98, emp. added, italics in orig.). According to Barker, atheism can be defined in purely negative terms without offering a single positive concept, the very thing he accuses those who define “spirit” of doing.
Furthermore, in answering his question during the cross-examination, I mentioned two words, darkness and cold, that are often understood in negative terms. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines darkness as: “1 a: devoid or partially devoid of light: not receiving, reflecting, transmitting, or radiating light” (2009, emp. added). Even though “darkness” is defined in negative terms as the absence of light, there is no doubt that darkness exists.
God is the uncaused, all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful, gracious, eternal Spirit whose personality and attributes are manifested in the pages of the Bible. Virtually every dictionary gives an understandable and reasonable definition of God, books that deal with difficult words omit God, and God has been the main subject of discussion and study of the vast majority of the most brilliant thinkers for millennia. The rhetorical tactic suggesting that God cannot be defined is nothing more than an assertion based on a materialistic philosophy that is unfounded. In truth, God can be clearly defined and delineated from all other entities to such an extent that Dan Barker and I can be involved in a formal debate and both know exactly what (or rather Who) we are discussing—God, the God of the Bible.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000), (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin), fourth edition.
Barker, Dan and Peter Payne (2005), Does Ethics Require God? [On-line], URL: http://www.ffrf.org/about/bybarker/ethics_debate.php.
Barker, Dan (2008), godless (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press).
Butt, Kyle and Dan Barker (2009), Does the God of the Bible Exist? (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Darwin, Charles (1860), On the Origin of Species By Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: The Modern Library), second edition.
Dawkins, Richard (1996), The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton).
Dawkins, Richard (2006), The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 30th Anniversary Edition.
Harrub, Brad and Bert Thompson (2004), “The Origin of the Brain and Mind—Parts 1 & 2,” [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=549.
Hazen, Robert (2005), Origins of Life(Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company).
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2009), [On-line], URL: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary.
The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, Mispronounced Words (1972), ed. Laurence Urdang, (New York: Weathervane Books).
Thompson, Bert and Brad Harrub (2004), “The Origin of Consciousness—Parts 1 & 2,” [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=552.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993), (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster).
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