David Bentley Hart on God

I’ve finally started reading the book that’s touted as the be-all and end-all of Sophisticated Theology™, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, by David Bentley Hart, published last year by Yale University Press. As you probably know if you’re a regular, this book has been touted by many religious people as the most definitive argument for God and most compelling refutation of New Atheism. The implication is that if you’re an atheist and haven’t read it, you can’t argue properly against religion—in fact, as Hart maintains, you’re deluding yourself as an atheist.

While the thought of reading yet another theology book makes my gorge rise, I figured I’d better read this one, if for no other reason than to have some minimal street cred in theology. But I am curious to see what arguments Hart adduces for God that differ from those of other theologians. (Hart, born in 1965, is described by Wikipedia as “an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator.”)

I’ll be reacting to this book as I read it, so these are merely ober dicta as I go along. I’ll try to sum it up after I’ve finished.

I’m only 35 pages in, but it’s already clear that Hart in fact has little desire to provide evidence for God’s existence. In fact, he thinks that God’s existence is self-evident, and (à la Plantinga) says that our very ability to apprehend truth testifies to God’s existence, for natural selection alone could not have given us such abilities. The fact that we are often deceived by things, and have devised science as a way to prevent such deception, is not considered, nor is the fact that in many cases natural selection would have favored an accurate assessment of our environment.

Hart doesn’t think that one can adduce evidence for God in the way you can adduce evidence for fairies or other paranormal phenomenon, so he doesn’t regard the existence of God as an empirical hypothesis, as many of us do. Rather, evidence for God is basically logical and experiential; and so the New Atheists who equate God with fairies and the like are simply wrong. As Hart says (p. 34):

Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

It seems that if our experience is saturated with evidence against the reality of god (say, if you’re a pediatric oncologist), that doesn’t count for Hart. I’m curious to see what he will say about the Achilles Heel of theism: the problem of evil, which he promises to address later.

What’s clear, though, is that Hart’s main intentions in the book are to give a characterization of God, and to show that this characterization holds for nearly all major religions and is not limited to Christianity.  Further, he argues, this conception of God is one that is not only held currently by all major religions, but has been held by Christianity throughout its history. According to Hart, literalism, or the interpretation of Biblical events as historical, is a recent phenomenon that accompanied the rise of Fundamentalism about a century ago. (I disagree with him on this, having looked at a fair amount of writings by Church Fathers like Aquinas lately.)

Hart further argues that if you don’t hold his view of God, but remain an atheist, then you’re arguing against strawmen “old-guy-with-beard” conceptions that aren’t the best theology has to offer; and your arguments carry no weight. (More in a minute about whether such definitions are held by “regular” believers).  It’s also clear that Hart despises New Atheists, and dismisses them by name (Dawkins, Stenger, Hitchens, and Grayling, among others) as attacking cartoon definitions of religion.  There is a undertone of arrogance and dismissiveness in his prose (Hart does write well), which is off-putting to someone who has seen value in New Atheism. He also dismisses materialism as an unwarranted assumption of atheists, and will, I think, use the examples of “being, consciousness, and bliss” as immaterial phenomena that cannot be explained or even understood by science, and hence give evidence for God. Or so he hints in the first chapter.

So what is Hart’s take on God? Here’s the definition he synthesizes and sees as part of all major faiths (pp. 30-31):

To speak of “God” properly, then—to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baháí, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something poised over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true comprehension.

Well, parts of that are opaque to me, particularly the part about God sustaining all things, but so be it. My question is this: even if this is a syncretic conception of God, how did all those religions arrive at this unanimity? What reasons did they use did to arrive at a God who omniscient, omnipotent, and a source of bliss? Hart punts a bit on this (pp. 30-31):

All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of those qualities of fine reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassng mere conceptual comprehension.

This baffles me. If God is beyond comprehension, not subject to any kind of empirical investigation, how can he be “known” and “reasoned toward”? Can logic and reason alone, even when combined with revelation, give us a solid view of God? For surely there are many who have revelatory experiences of God that differ from Hart’s view. And if only reason and not verified empirical observation is in play, how do we know that god is omniscient or omnipotent? How do we know, in fact, that he is not a being, since many people experience him that way: as a person to whom one can pray, an entity that is anthropormorphic—a humanlike mind without a body?

Hart’s response is  that we need to rely on the consensus not of “average” believers, but of theologians, who somehow have the wisdom to winnow the true God from the bearded one. But that’s not the case, for many other theologians see God differently from Hart. Here, for example, are Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, whom I quoted in a recent post about whether God is a bodiless person:

“What he [Daniel Dennett] calls an “anthropomorphic” God, furthermore, is precisely what traditional Christians believe in—a god who is a person, the sort of being who is capable of knowledge, who has aims and ends, and who can and in fact does act on what he knows in such a way as to try to accomplish those aims.” (Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p. 11)

I take the proposition ‘God exists’ (and the equivalent proposition ‘There is a God’) to be logically equivalent to “there exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things.’ I use ‘God’ as the name of the person picked out by this description.” (Swinburne, Existence of God p. 7)

“That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism. It is by being told this or something that entails this (e.g., that God always listens to and sometimes grants us our prayers, he has plans for us, he forgives our sins, but he does not have a body) that young children are introduced to the concept of God.” (Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, p. 101)

Now Plantinga and Swinburne may also sign on to all the characteristics given above, but they also have add-ons about God’s characteristics (how do they know that from reason and revelation alone?), and about his goodness. The fact is that there is not the consensus God that Hart sees, for even if he’s distilled a nucleus from other religions (some of which seems opaque), those other faiths have further beliefs about God that are incompatible, and probably rejected by Hart. What about Jesus, about the Resurrection, Allah’s dictations to Muhammad, about Xenu, about Moroni and the Golden Plates? Are those add-ons mere myths without historical veracity, and, since they’re arrived at in the same way Hart arrives at his conception of God, why do they conflict? Do we perceive their “truth” the same way we perceive the true nature of God? After all, many people “sense” Jesus the way Hart senses God.

Finally, as pointed out by Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic, these characteristics of God are not those seen by the “average” believer:

I cannot speak for everyone, of course, and the amount of time I have spent with deeply religious people (Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims) is relatively limited. But I have talked somewhat extensively with people in each of these religions and not a single one of them has ever described his or her belief in God in anything like these terms. As Jerry Coyne puts it in response to Linker, “Yes, it turns out that the 99% of believers who see God as an anthropomorphic being are wrong, and only the theologians—that is, some theologians—truly know what God is.”

But to Hart, what the average believer thinks about God is irrelevant. (So much for the New Atheists, whose arguments are largely aimed at those people, and have been, contra Hart’s claim, remarkably effective at dispelling faith.) For Hart sees the relationship between the average believer and the theologian in the same way that he sees the relationship between the average layperson who’s interested in science and the professional scientist. The layperson has an imperfect—and sometimes erroneous—idea of what scientists really say, and likewise the average believer has an imperfect notion of what God really is, for it is the theologians who have to work that out, just as scientists must work out the facts of biology, physics, and so on.

The problem with this argument is that scientists have the tools and the system for sussing out the truths about nature: it’s the toolkit of reason, a background in the field, and the endemic cross-checking of data with other scientists and testing of hypotheses against nature, as well as the readiness to discard those hypotheses that don’t comport with data.

In contrast, theologians have no tools for finding out about the true nature of the divine except some training in philosophy and—sometimes—a decent ability to write. Theologians like Aquinas believed in all sorts of historical phenomena from the Bible, like Paradise and Adam, and they have the same tools as does Hart, who sees Aquinas as one of the greatest of Christian philosophers. Aquinas also believed in angels, and devoted a huge section of the Summa Theologica to figuring out what angels were like, how many there were, what they wanted, and how they moved about. All that is precisely the same brand of nonsense that Hart attributes to the New Atheists. Hart’s claim that Biblical literalism began in the last 120 years with Fundamentalism is not supported by the beliefs of early church fathers. Yes, they sometimes emphasized that Scripture should be read metaphorically as well as literally, but if there was a conflict, people like Aquinas and Augustine always took the literal description as bedrock.

I am writing this just to distill and collect my own thoughts as I read this book. I am clearly not reading it as a religionist, but neither am I automatically rejecting everything that Hart says. Nevertheless, I am reading the book critically, and much of what he maintains is, I think, in conflict with the history of theology. And I say that in full realization that Hart knows a lot more about theology than I do.

In the end, of course, even if atheists finally comprehend the Sophisticated Notion of God adumbrated by Hart, we have to ask ourselves why we should think that this God exists. The Argument from Self Evidence, which resembles that of Plantinga, will not convince many of us, even though Hart maintains that atheism is even more of a delusion than theism.

I am of course interested in getting readers’ takes on Hart’s view of God, especially if they’ve read his book.

398 Comments

  1. ladyatheist
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Your next read perhaps?

    Christ the Eternal Tao

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Does it insult Chinese philosophy to suggest that this probably includes anything attributed to Jesus that is incomprehensible?

    • Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Actually, I once thought (now I’m not sure) that one can translate “dao” from *later* (post-Buddhist-influence) Daoism as “logos”, but not John’s gospel-logos, but sort of Heraclitus’ notion.

  2. Posted March 24, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “[Hart] doesn’t regard the existence of God as an empirical hypothesis, as many of us do. Rather, evidence for God is basically logical and experiential”

    This is actually a convenient false dichotomy which is consistently posited to keep the god hypothesis safe. In reality, there is a necessary joining bridge between logic and science. And if logic applies to god then so does that bridge.

  3. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    While this story is apocriphal, it neatly sums up the discussion between science and theology:

    “Laplace went in state to Napoleon to present a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, ‘M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.’ Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”)

    Creationists, God believers and people of this ilk still have to prove the USEFULNESS of their assertions. Where in our daily working and shaping does the God hypothesis make a difference? Does it lift weights? Does it feed people?

    So, the whole argumentation back and forth is pointless. Until they make the point of usefulness. Which they’ll never do.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Hart and his droogs would no doubt make much of the claim that their worldview promotes a shared vision of humanity. How that comports with the behavior of actual contemplatives across the traditions may be a good question.

  4. Richard Thomas
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    A clear case of the hamburger god — the ground up being. The theological grinder has made a mess. The bits won’t cohere. Hart tries to make a patty but fails.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      He does do a pretty sloppy joe, er, job of it.

  5. Tulse
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    our very ability to apprehend truth testifies to God’s existence, for natural selection alone could not have given us such abilities

    This argument bugs the hell out of me, because it is based on question-begging. How do we have the ability to comprehend the “truth”? Because of god! But how do we know that we actually do comprehend the “truth”? The whole argument presupposes the very existence of the thing being justified. Either we already know that we perceive “truth”, in which case we don’t need a god to let us do so, or we can’t know that we perceive “truth”, in which case there being a god doesn’t help. The problem is essentially the Euthyphro Dilemma for truth.

    Put another way, if we couldn’t perceive the “truth”, how would the world look different to us? If it did look different than this world, it means we could perceive the truth without a god. If it wouldn’t look any different, then how does having a god help?

    • Sastra
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      It’s not just question-begging. It’s equivocation, too.

      Human beings don’t have the ability to apprehend Truth without error, ambiguity, interpretation, or perspective. We often get things wrong — as would be expected on evolution. We apprehend truth. Not Truth.

      But the sensus divinitis — a magical ability to JUST KNOW that God exists in the same direct, obvious, undeniable way you can sense your own self — that requires God. This is Truth.

  6. Vaal
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just begun wading through the book.
    Thus far it is exactly what it smelled like from afar. Nothing in it’s opening chapters suggests anything different is coming than most of us have encountered plenty of times before.

    And it’s sure loaded with a lot of butt-hurt over the the popularity of New Atheism.

    Vaal

  7. Observer
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    God cannot simultaneously possess the charateristics he is supposed to have. Immanence and transcendence are incompatible. Neither can he have such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence and will, yet not be concieved of as a mind or in some sense a person. These are characteristics of a being, albeit an imaginary one, not a “ground of being.”

    The God he imagines is illogical and absurd. It’s only strength is that it has, at any given moment, whatever attributes it needs in order to not be the God the atheists are arguing against. No matter, the moment the atheists change their attack, his God will change its attributes. In that sense, his god is all-powerful, though no less ridiculous.

  8. JimV
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    For me the game begins and ends here:

    “All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension.”

    Well, if the essence of “God” is to be beyond comprehension doesn’t it follow that it can’t be the explanation for anything? But the whole point of inventing the God hypothesis was to explain things that couldn’t otherwise be explained. It seemed to work for a while as long as Gods were simple, anthropomorphic beings who got mad and caused famines because people forgot to sacrifice to them, but now it seems theology has come full circle. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall always be: the concept of “God” explains nothing, and is just a sophisticated way of saying, “I don’t know”.

  9. Jonathan Dore
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I once had the task of editing an encyclopedia of Greek culture and thought, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a group of people who take themselves quite so seriously, or who are so pompously disdainful of the “shallowness” of western thought (which to them encompasses not only Protestantism but the whole edifice of science and the Enlightenment) as Orthodox churchmen and theologians. They make Catholics look like amateurs.

  10. Dermot C
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Literalism did indeed, as Hart says, accompany the rise of Fundamentalism in the nineteenth century. It’s more accurate to talk of inerrancy before you get onto the idea of literalism, for the latter cannot be a theologically tenable position unless one assumes the inerrancy of the Bible. But literalism is not a new phenomenon.

    All the writers of the NT really did assume that Jesus really did die on the cross: the early Church Fathers thought passim that he was born of Mary: Daniel really did call God the ‘Ancient of Days’: Jesus is alleged to have called God ‘Abba’, Father – sounds like an old guy with a beard: the Deuteronomic historian really did base his skewed history of Israel and Judah on the chronicles of the Jewish kings: Maccabees 1-2 really did tell the story of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids: Justin Martyr really did believe that Jesus appeared in the Old Testament: even the Marcionites probably believed that the resurrection happened.

    These are not straw-men: but if they are, Hart would have to give reasons why they are now all wrong. He could base his argument, not on the idea of the inerrancy and literalism of the Bible, but on the idea of sacred writings having been ‘inspired’ (in the Christian tradition, usually by the Holy Spirit): à la 2 Timothy 3:14-17, in which Paul talks of all scripture being (ahem) literally ‘breathed out’ by God. That’s quite an authority if you want to demolish it theologically. Fortunately, for liberal Christians, it’s a forgery. Which, of course, raises even more problems…

    Slaínte.

  11. Sastra
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    A logically necessary noncontingent Ground of Being would not need a theologian to make an argument. It wouldn’t even need an argument. It would be clear and obvious.

    Existence exists. Reality is real. Being is.

    In other words, it would be a tautology involving the experience of experience. You can’t unpack God from a tautology about “Be-ing.”

    The big problem with Hart following along this “sophisticated” path is that it won’t make God more sophisticated in the right way (i.e. becoming more and more like secular humanism plus a symbol.) Instead, it starts to entail that atheism (and thus secular humanism) are perverse. Insane. Willfully obtuse, so that denying that God exists is like someone denying that anything exists, or that they exist. Reason makes atheism not just mistaken, but grossly mistaken. Unthinkable.

    It’s morally pernicious to do that. Hart may be livid with anger over gnu atheism, but we have far more reason to be livid with anger over Hart.

  12. Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    The first thing that occurs to me after reading the quoted definition of god is that it does not make any sense to talk of this ground of being as “he”. The word does not apply – one could just as well talk of gravity as “she” – so why is it there? I assume it is there to allow the sneaky conflation of the apologist ground of all being with the bearded man in the sky that the majority of the believers actually wants to believe in. And so much for that.

    My question is this: even if this is a syncretic conception of God, how did all those religions arrive at this unanimity?

    To the degree that some of them did, it was probably because sophisticated believers in Islam, Christianity and Hinduism were at some point equally embarrassed to admit belief in something that is obviously false but also equally unwilling to concede atheism…

  13. strongforce
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Theological dust-up between theologians Hart and Webb.

    Interesting read.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/samrocha/2013/12/guest-post-how-david-bentley-hart-censored-my-review-of-his-new-book-at-first-things/

    • Posted March 24, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Ye gods is that weird. Equal parts beautiful and depressing.

      Reading the last few paragraphs makes me want to shake these people and say, WHY do you believe that nonsense? Where does that come from? And how can you guys possibly arrogate to assess a “theory of matter” based on its “compatibility with the intellectual tradition of Christianity”? What makes you think that the latter is relevant for, well, anything whatsoever? Are you still mentally in the middle ages or what?

      I guess I am just not used to reading theology.

      • Chris
        Posted March 25, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        I made the mistake of reading the comments, Webb’s original review and *it’s* commence.

        Weird sums it up. As does nonsensical. And also entertainingly bitchy. Those folks seem very thin-skinned.

        Bonus points given for Hart’s brother (another theologian by the look of it) turning up in both threads to defend him.

        • Chris
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

          For commence read comments. Autocorrect failure.

  14. ToddP
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    So…summing up Hart’s premise:

    Inventory of things that are:
    1. the universe
    2. a tree
    3. a shoemaker

    Inventory of things that aren’t:
    1. God

    Alrighty then. Let’s get a beer.

    • Posted March 24, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      As long as beer belongs in the first list!

      /@

    • Chris
      Posted March 25, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      Taking that logic to it’s conclusion:

      Inventory of things that are:
      Everything

      Inventory of things that aren’t:
      God

      Yeah. Beer needed, I think, as he’s obviously arguing for something that isn’t.

  15. Wowbagger
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Hart’s response is that we need to rely on the consensus not of “average” believers, but of theologians, who somehow have the wisdom to winnow the true God from the bearded one.

    Funny, they’re quite happy to use ‘average’ believers when they trot out a thinly-veiled argumentum ad populum. When ‘sophisticated’ theologians like Hart start going to churches on a Sunday morning and calling out ‘average’ Christians for believing in the wrong concept of God I might starting taking this argument seriously.

  16. David A. Eberth
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Hart’s rejection of a more simplistic anthropomorphic god is confusing in light of his continued use of male pronouns (he, his, etc) in reference to it: “…he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality…”

    This use sends the message that Hart really wants to have it both ways–personal anthropomorphic god as well as the “beyond being” something else. Where material evidence is lacking, semantics, clear definitions and word choice really do become critical. In this case, use of “he” in reference to Hart’s god seems terribly counter-productive to me.

  17. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Someone more clever than I needs to write a book entitled The Experience of 42.

  18. kelskye
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    When it comes to what Hart appears to be saying there, then semantic rather than universal atheism is warranted. Coming up with a way to make statements of God non-empirical just means such a conception is beyond our ability to make meaningful statements about. I’ll happily concede I can’t prove such a conception of God is wrong – just that it is meaningless.

    Also it’s confusing as to why this is a problem for atheism – atheism is warranted if one has no good reason to believe in God.God beyond any ability to make meaningful observations about by definition validates the atheistic position. As Flew argued, what is the difference between an unfalsifiable conception of God and no God at all?

    • kelskye
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      I would hope, too, that if it’s meaningless to refer to God in a personal way as if God is a thing, then it follows that nearly all theistic utterances are either false or tautological. Miracle claims become meaningless, Inverness of design absurd, claims of divine experience pointless. Is that *really* the God of theism throughout the ages? That people claiming to hear God’s Word, that miracles happen, that God’s hand can be detected in the order of things – none of that is theism?

      • Posted March 24, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

        Glasgow of design makes far more sense…

        /@

        • kelskye
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:35 am | Permalink

          That’s what I get for trusting my phone’s autocorrect feature.

          *Inferences

  19. Cliff Melick
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I should like to ask Mr. Hart why, if god is not a proper name, does he continually capitalize the word.

  20. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    We can learn things about God by analogy to us, I think, but we must be careful not to mistake the analogy for the reality and try to know God that way.”

    This is a good, well-constructed sentence.

    Completely vacuous, but well-constructed.

    • kelskye
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      It also invites the problem of the irreducible analogy. When we say one thing is analogous to another, we are inviting a comparison between two literals. If we use analogical language with God, then we have to understand how the analogy works if the desire is to have the analogy illuminate. But we don’t know God’s nature, and we cannot measure God’s nature, so there’s nothing to say why a particular analogy works.

      In other words, if God is beyond human comprehension, then analogies won’t help. The appeal to analogy is little more than a way to mask over the impossibility of actually saying something meaningful about God. A way for theists to decry the literalism of their critics while using language that only makes sense on a literal account.

  21. drew
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

    This is starting to sound to me like presuppositionalist apologetics.

    To speak of “God” properly, then—to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baháí, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something poised over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things.

    Arti manthano!

    God is a Brane from M theory.

    Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true comprehension.

    Again, sounds like presuppositionalist apologetics.

    • Posted March 24, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

      Well, if God is a brane, clearly that’s where consciousness comes from…

      /@

    • Posted March 25, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Ontological presuppositionalism, rather than the “how do you know?” epistemological kind, I suppose.

  22. Posted March 24, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    My take:

    – I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book. As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions. However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians.

    – We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book. What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc. These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”

    -For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another. Moslems beg to differ. Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever. “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye. Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means. One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames. One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now. He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.

    In a word, Hart’s God is a castrated version of the God that most people actually believe in. Whack the mole and move on.

  23. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    “…to use the word ["God"] in a sense consonant with the teachings of … a great deal of antique paganism … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is…”

    Whut?

    I don’t think that word, paganism, means what he thinks it does. Even decorated with the qualifier “antique” and snuck in there with a bunch of more recent medieval religions. Unless he’s been reading some influential antique pagan theologians they never taught me about when I was in school.

  24. ShadiZ1
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book, but from your and other people’s commentaries on it, it seems to me that Hart is just rephrasing some of Immanuel Kant’s views on God and elaborating on them to fit with traditional theistic beliefs. If you read Kant’s philosophical works on God and religion, you’ll notice considerable parallelisms (in language and in substance) between his discussion of God and that of Hart.

    These are a few excerpts from The Cambridge Companion to Kant (under the section Rational theology, moral faith, and religion, written by Allen Wood):

    “On the basis of Kant’s argument, the idea of God is the ground of the concepts of all other things. In his 1763 essay The Only Possible Basis of Proof for a Demonstration of God’s Existence, Kant used these considerations to argue that God is also ‘the ground of all possibility’ and consequently a necessarily existent being. Although by 1781 he no longer endorses this proof of God’s existence, it continues to influence his thinking about rational theology. In the Critique of Pure Reason he denies that his 1763 proof justifies a ‘dogmatic conclusion’ that God exists, but he continues to hold that the existence of God as ‘the substream of all possibility’ is a ‘subjectively necessary hypothesis’ for our reason.

    “Kant’s conception of God belongs squarely in the scholastic-rationalist tradition. God is the supremely perfect being, extra-mundane, immutable, timelessly eternal. He is also living, knowing, and willing: omniscient, omnipotent, supremely holy, just, and beneficent. Kant draws a distinction between God’s ‘ontological’ predicates, which can be derived from the pure categories, and his ‘cosmological’ or ‘anthropological’ predicates, based on empirical features of the world (especially features of ourselves). Kant defines ‘deism’ as the view that admits only an ‘ontotheology’ or ‘transcendental theology’. For a deist, God is a ‘blindly working eternal nature as the root of all things’ (a single supremely perfect necessarily existent supramundane substance, immutable, impassible, all-sufficient, omnipresent, timelessly eternal) but not a living, knowing, or willing being. A ‘theist’ is someone who has also a ‘natural theology,’ regarding God as a rational and moral being on the basis of predicates drawn from finite things (especially from our own mental life).”

    Later Wood continues by saying:

    “Kant’s discussion of the traditional theistic proofs is based on the view that God is an ens logice originarium, whose necessary existence is naturally thought to follow from its status as the root of all possibility. Kant considers proofs for God’s existence only as proofs for the existence of a supremely perfect being or ens realissimum, and he thinks that a truly adequate proof of the existence of such a being would have to be a priori.”

    And again, later on in the section:

    “Kant maintains that we can be rationally justified in holding a proposition not only by theoretical (‘objective’) evidence, but also by practical (‘subjective’) considerations. He tries to present such considerations in the so-called moral argument for belief in God. [...] Kant thinks that it is plain to us that the possibility of the second component of the highest good [SZ1: which is the idea that happiness should be proportional to virtue] depends on the existence of a Providence, which does know each one’s desert and ultimately apportions happiness in accordance with it. In other words, the possibility of the second component depends on the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, just, and benevolent being. Hence the pursuit of the highest good rationally justifies belief in a God.”

    • Richard Olson
      Posted March 24, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      “Kant’s discussion of the traditional theistic proofs is based on the view that God is an ens logice originarium, whose necessary existence is naturally thought to follow from its status as the root of all possibility. Kant considers proofs for God’s existence only as proofs for the existence of a supremely perfect being or ens realissimum, and he thinks that a truly adequate proof of the existence of such a being would have to be a priori.”

      Kant demonstrates he was no slouch when it comes to ontological presuppositional bullshit word fucking salad. Even a master is limited by the materials available, of course, and skilled use of words by one of the best still can’t stick paper to a nonexistent wall.

    • Posted March 24, 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      I notice that some commentators including A C Grayling think that Kant was probably an atheist: http://rationalist.org.uk/996/reasonable-bounds.

      • Posted March 25, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        He was certainly skeptical of the local religion: the story was that at the time, his university mandated senior professors literally lead the students to chapel on Sunday. He would do so – and then not go in. More than that I don’t know – being sort of an anti-Kantian. :)

  25. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I can’t resist noting that a key idea I recall of Aquinas was that faith is always about belief in a proposition, never about trust in a personal savior.

    Either Hart disagrees with St. Aquinas, or his explanation of what faith in “God” *really* means couldn’t be more different from the beliefs of the Christians I regularly encounter.

  26. Golkarian
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Romans 1:20 is why claiming that atheists just need to read the next apologetics book contradicts the Bible, I think this should be brought up along with Coyne’s idea of giving theists a bunch of atheist books they need to wade through.

    • Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:05 am | Permalink

      To save others time:

      20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

      /@

  27. Kevin Alexander
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    If Hart is claiming that god is beyond comprehension and reason and his book has exactly those qualities isn’t he claiming to be god?

  28. kelskye
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this all day. The power of the kalaam cosmological argument, for example, comes from the apparent personhood of God. That persons are the kinds of things that can act of their own volition, thus a person stops the infinite regress in a way that ordinary physical things could not. Likewise, arguments to design rely on the analogy between the artefacts persons make and the design in nature. Thus if we are to use the analogy with any force, then the designers must resemble our person. The weaker the resemblance, the weaker the argument. So a God that is only analogously a person means a far weaker inference. Same goes for any reference to revealed theism. How does God communicate with people? How does God perform miracles? We can make sense of these as personal actions, but what would it mean to say they are analogously personal?

    Given these are three of the standard arguments for the existence of God, and have been part of the case for God both in philosophy and in theology for millennia, it seems somewhat disingenuous of Hart to suggest that such a literal personal description is a recent invention. It’s even more disingenuous to go after atheists for not signing on either. Just what does any of it mean if God is not a person?

    • Sastra
      Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Theists usually get around this conundrum by insisting that something can be like a person in some ways, but not really a person. This is a wonderful strategy because you can pick up and drop off almost any attribute you want at any time.

      If you terminate an infinite regress of physical causation with an appeal to an irreducible, timeless, and eternal intentional agency, then complaints regarding the unlikelihood of the existence of an unevolved, timeless, disembodied eternal Person can be met with indignant claims that you implied nothing of the sort. God isn’t like us, it’s not a person. It’s the ground of all Being AND an intentional agency … which makes the comparison to personal beings totally inadequate.

      We sometimes have to think of God as a person, but that’s only a metaphorical crutch. But note how everything involving agency, intentions, desires, values, and virtues applies only to a person or when you have a person.

      In science, the first trick is not to fool yourself. In religion, that’s the bag you put all the other tricks in.

      • kelskye
        Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        To say “it’s like a person” however, would be to weaken the explanatory power of the argument. It would be completely conceding the design argument, for example.

        • Sastra
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Not necessarily. Look at WLCraig on how God might create:

          And in human productions, many people think that things like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina exist and they are not identical to particular marks on paper or particular published books. These exist as sort of abstract entities. A physical copy of Anna Karenina or a score from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is just an instance of that. It is not the thing itself. Now, where did these come from? Well, most people would say they were created by Tolstoy and Beethoven – they created these things. So some people would say these would be examples of things that exist that have been created out of nothing. That example is, I think, especially provocative because in this case you have the creation of something by sheer thought, by a mind. And God is a mind, so maybe as an infinite mind God has somehow thought the universe into being. Maybe by thought he produces and creates a physical universe just as we by thought can create a symphony or a novel.

          Would Hart agree with Craig? My guess is only if you stipulated that God is not a Being, but Being itself … while simultaneously making it a personal being for the purposes of understanding it on our terms. A contradiction, but once you’ve decided comprehensibility is not one of God’s virtues then all bets are off.

          • kelskye
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

            But then Craig runs into that same problem of mind being a characteristic of being a person. Just what way does God’s mind create? Beethoven and Tolstoy presumably had brains where those ideas originated.

        • Fr Aidan Kimel
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

          I’m happy to do without the Kalaam cosmological argument and strong versions of the design argument. And you won’t, btw, find them in Hart’s book.

          When I was an atheist 35 years ago, I eventually found one particular philosophical argument persuasive–Richard Taylor’s argument that the reliability of sensory perception demonstrates that human beings have been created. I have no idea whether the argument is sound or not. What I can say is that my belief in God does not rest on it today–and hasn’t done so for decades.

          As far as other arguments for the existence of God, I suppose they may have their apologetic and evangelical purposes; but I suspect far too much energy is invested in them. I do not reject them out of hand, but I do not ground my faith upon them. As Hart attempts to show in his book, belief in a transcendent God is not based on “arguments” but on a fundamental apprehension of reality that one might call metaphysical or even mystical.

          To everyone in this thread: read the book before you begin criticizing it. Hart is a thoughtful and substantive theologian (not an apologist!). He is not trying to prove the existence of God. He is elaborating on an understanding of deity that he believes is shared not only by the three major monotheistic faiths but also by some of the Eastern religions. Personally, I wish he had confined himself to the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; but it was his choice to gather in understandings of deity outside the monotheistic Three. In any case, I recognize the God of the Christian Church in his presentation.

          • Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            “Richard Taylor’s argument that the reliability of sensory perception demonstrates that human beings have been created. I have no idea whether the argument is sound or not.”

            Well, it’s clearly not. The reliability of sensory perception (to the degree that it is reliable — invisible gorillas and all that), is easily seen as a product of evolution: If it weren’t reliable (with enough false positives to be sure of avoid predators without being so bad that we expended too much energy running aware from the wind rustling the undergrowth) our ancestors wouldn’t have survived to reproduce.

            “In any case, I recognise the God of the Christian Church in his presentation.”

            Well, how nice for you. It’s nothing like the Christian God I was brought up to believe in. At least one of us has the wrong conception … 

            /@

          • kelskye
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            The point wasn’t that they form part of Hart’s defence (or that the argument was any good), but that these kinds of arguments have formed a part of natural theology for a long time, so it’s disingenuous to pretend it’s a modern phenomenon.

            “As far as other arguments for the existence of God, I suppose they may have their apologetic and evangelical purposes; but I suspect far too much energy is invested in them.”
            My point was not about what you believe – or what Hart believes – about God. Rather it was about how the personal deity has been part of theological and philosophical discussion for thousands of years and not a modern phenomenon. Whether Hart has come up with an intellectually defensible God, I cannot say, nor can I say whether it’s compatible with the various theisms. My comments above were that the classical arguments for God which the atheists can and do take to task are part of a vast intellectual tradition in theism.

            There is a difference between arguing for a particular conception of theism, and arguing that there’s only one conception of theism and that is Hart’s. Hart can debate what God is with other theologians instead of pretending that atheists are wrong for not going after his conception of God. That’s what I find disingenuous.

          • Posted March 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            He is not trying to prove the existence of God. He is elaborating on an understanding of deity that he believes is shared not only by the three major monotheistic faiths but also by some of the Eastern religions.

            …thereby demonstrating the profound dishonesty of all apologetics. And, yes, even sophisticated theology is apologetics.

            See, if all y’all were honest about this, you’d cut to the chase and just tell us what it is that convinced you of the reality of your positions. Instead, you won’t go anywhere near that and spend all your time trying to give us supportive arguments that you yourself don’t believe but that you think might convince us.

            The only reasonable conclusion is that none of you actually really believe, yourselves, and you’re just afraid to admit that fact, even to yourselves.

            If you actually did believe, then you’d be plenty confident in your reasons for belief that you wouldn’t at all be ashamed to use them to convince others. I believe, for example, that if I drop something it’ll fall at about ten meters per second per second until it hits something or air resistance becomes significant. And — and this is the important part — I believe that because I’ve dropped things with a stopwatch at hand and measured all that, and I’d be thrilled to help you set up a similar experiment that you can text and confirm this fact for yourself.

            What have you got for your gods that’s even vaguely as convincing as dropping an apple?

            Nothing, right?

            Well, why’re you fooling yourself that you can fool anybody else?

            Cheers,

            b&

          • kelskye
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            “human beings have been created.”
            Now, given what I said earlier, how does one gel this notion of creation without projecting our conception of personal agency onto God (which, apparently, is the wrong way of looking at it)? This is the kind of thing I object to. I can understand a notion of a person creating things. I can understand a person designing things. What I can’t understand is how God can be those things if God is not a literal person.

            That’s the issue I was trying to highlight – the idea that God can be a creator except unlike any creator we know, or God can be a designer except unlike any designer we know, I have to wonder just what on earth they are talking about. I honestly don’t know, and I would wager they don’t know either.

            • Posted March 25, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

              There’s also the question of the mechanism of the implementation. Any proposal would require either the entity in question to be an alien traveling by spaceship or a gross violation of the best-evidenced and most-well-supported science in the history of humanity. Might as well have the Sun standing still in the sky for a couple days during the act of creation and be done with it.

              Sure, you could suggest these sorts of things with a straight face. But that still wouldn’t stop people from laughing at you for being a superstitious, primitive, uneducated idiot.

              Cheers,

              b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

            What makes you believe in God? You say that reliability of sensory perception doesn’t, which is good because as Ant explains that isn’t a sound reason….so care to explain what you do base your faith on?

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    So Hart is equal parts no evidence, deepities and glossolalia (“by whom we know and are known”). And this differ from other theologians how!?

    The question facing Hart is where is the testable evidence that the existence of his magical agency differs from all other known existences, where ‘logical and experiential’ doesn’t suffice? In fact, where ‘logical and experiential’ is the road to delusion?

    Hart doesn’t provide the necessary evidence, and so he has nothing.

    Ironically, if Self Evidence suffice to understand the basis of the world, it would lead us straightly to the other conclusion, that there is no magic agency. It would follow from avoiding overdetermination (“Occam’s razor”).

    Specific nit: Nothing in science is assumed (re “materialism”).

    To sum up Hart’s problem with truth and reality in 2 simple steps:

    1. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.” ["Cargo Cult Science", Feynman]

    2. “The God Delusion”. [Dawkins]

    And so ends the ultimate effort (we are promised) of a long line of incestuous Sophisticated Theology™.

    Not with a big bang, but with a whimper.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Nevertheless, I am reading the book critically, and much of what he maintains is, I think, in conflict with the history of theology. And I say that in full realization that Hart knows a lot more about theology than I do.

    That is symptomatic of a genre where the actors have to lean over backwards, and finally insert their heads in their ass, in order to avoid seeing the facts on the table. Mistakes will be made, assertions will be lies.

  31. Scott_In_OH
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Hart sounds to me like he’s following Aquinas, although if he follows him closely he’ll end up rejecting all gods but the Christian one. On my understanding, Aquinas argues

    1. God exists, because if He didn’t, all causal chains would include infinite regress, which is impossible.

    2. God is different from everything else we see, because if He weren’t, then something would have to have caused him, which is impossible because of #1.

    3. God is the source of all that is good–because all the good things in this world couldn’t come from nothing–but not of anything that is bad, since bad is properly understood as the absence of something good.

    At least that’s what I understand so far. Like Jerry, I’ve been reading up on Aquinas recently. He builds and extraordinary edifice on a handful of assumptions that turn out to be much more problematic than he understood.

    • Posted March 25, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      He’s a very good thinker, at least in terms of deduction and interrelating things. It is just a damn shame to read all of that brilliant mind’s wasted time on such unfortunate premisses …

  32. Posted March 25, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    “For Hart sees the relationship between the average believer and the theologian in the same way that he sees the relationship between the average layperson who’s interested in science and the professional scientist.”

    If that is his analogy, then it is extremely weak. What distinguishes professional scientists from lay people are 1) rigorous training in the “scientific method”, or the tools used to find out what is really true about the natural world, and 2) deep exposure to the fruits of that method.

    Someone like me has a very general understanding of the claims of General Relativity, including the claims that it has been very successful in making predictions. A real physicist could not only go into much greater detail about what GR is, she or he should be able to devise ways to test it, or at the very least understand the tests that have been devised.

    How is the same kind of thing happening with the lay religious person and the professional theologian? Hart throws out emperical testing and developing predictive models as a tool, so what does he have over the regular Joe sitting in church on a Sunday? Superior notions of what it is to experience God??? What arrogance!

    I would love to see a debate b/t someone like Hart and someone like William Lane Craig, who absolutely believes in God as a person who has visibly interacted with our world. I would also love to see Craig’s reaction when Hart tries to explain that Christianity and Islam are not that different.

  33. Fr Aidan Kimel
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    If one’s knowledge of classical theism (and I’m really thinking of Christianity, since that is what I know best) is restricted to philosophers like Swinburne and Plantinga, then one will inevitably end up with a skewed view of the Christian doctrine of God. Neither of them are representative of the classical tradition, though both are sharp as tacks and very interesting. Both are representatives of what has been called “theistic personalism” (a fairly recent approach in philosophical theology), as opposed to classical theism, as found in the Church Fathers and the medieval theologians.

    This is one reason why *The Experience of God* by David Hart is so important. Hart is thoroughly grounded in the classical Christian tradition, which is profoundly apophatic. He sees the anthropomorphic dangers in the theistic personalism approach. This doesn’t mean that Hart believes in an impersonal God (quite the contrary), but it does mean that he does not understand God as an inflated human person.

    • Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but I don’t accept that the classical Christian tradition is profoundly apophatic. If people like Aquinas and Augustine didn’t think they could say anything about god except for what he was not, then they sure violated that repeatedly!

      • Fr Aidan Kimel
        Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Dr Coyne, the fact that both Aquinas and Augustine wrote a great deal on theological matters in no ways undermines their apophaticism. At the very beginning of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas makes clear that we cannot know what God is and thus can only say what he is not. It is this apophatic tradition that you and your fellow atheists need to come to understand if you want to talk intelligibly about the Christian God.

        Of course, all Christian theologians believe that the unknowable God has made revealed himself in various ways–hence all the positive things that Christian theologians are willing to attribute of God–but even this divine self-revelation does not undo the profound and incomprehensible mystery of the God who is beyond being.

        • Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          Of course, all Christian theologians believe that the unknowable God has made revealed himself in various ways

          So, it’s impossible to know anything about your gods, yet the theologians should be trusted in their claims of knowledge about those same gods?

          Sorry, but that sort of nonsense wouldn’t even get a passing grade in an introductory science class, let alone make it out of peer review of a respectable journal.

          Honestly, the big surprise is that those who spew such idiocy expect people to not laugh hysterically at them. It’s almost as surprising as the fact that there’re so many people who do fall for the scam and tithe heartily to win the favors of the men behind the curtain whom we should pay no attention to.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Fr Aidan Kimel
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

            Ben, in this thread the only question I’m willing to discuss is the question of the nature of God as understood by the major theistic traditions (specifically, the Christian Church). I’m not trying to persuade you or anyone that this God exists. My only hope is that you and your fellow atheists will come to understand that God is not a god but the transcendent Creator of the universe. Isn’t it important to understand your opponent’s views rather than attacking positions he does not hold?

            Feel free to come over to my blog and discuss the matter further.

            • Posted March 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              Honestly, that’s like insisting that you’ll only discuss the sex lives of married bachelors and you’re not at all interested in convincing people that married bachelorhood is a real phenomenon in the first place.

              And we understand full well the theistic mindset; many of us were theists, many even in the clergy. You might not have seen the surveys, but the fact is that atheists tend to be much more knowledgeable and aware of religious beliefs and doctrines than non-believers.

              The long and short of it is that what you’re promoting is classic doublethink dressed up in newspeak, with a good helping of duckspeak to help the flavor, all served with an heaping portion of cognitive dissonance.

              But you’re not interested in the reality of it, because that would mean that not only could you no longer look at yourself in the mirror after praising the Naked Emperor’s clothes but you also can’t bear the thought of admitting that, not only is the Emperor rather ugly, he’s also imaginary. Isn’t it so much easier to simply wax poetic about the crease in his cravat instead?

              Cheers,

              b&

            • Dermot C
              Posted March 25, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

              @Fr Aidan Kimel

              the nature of God as understood by the major theistic traditions…

              and

              God is not a god but the transcendent Creator of the universe.

              …within a few lines of each other. The problem with the two concepts is the huge distance between the two. To take the first quotation, you can easily reduce the three monotheisms to footnotes to the Deuteronomic historian(s). God (who incidentally did emerge not as GOD but as a god at the foot of the optician’s reading test) declared his covenant with the people of Israel and Judah, a tweak from the surrounding religions in which the gods had a relationship with the leaders of a people. The 3 monotheisms merely differ in with whom God has the covenant.

              This God works in the world or at least he did until 2 weekends ago when those scientists at the South Pole had the temerity to allege that he could only have existed in the time before the trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second before Inflation, 14.7 billion years ago.

              This God, as you know in the monotheistic tradition is a protean God: we know that YHWH responded justly to an error as pointed out by Abimelech in Genesis: of his wrath towards faithless Israel in 1 Kings 14:7-16 (that Deuteronomist again): that the Tetragrammaton prefers murder to mercy in demanding that Benhadad be put to the sword: that Saul lost the kingdom of Israel for failing to kill Agag, king of the Amalekites. This is a capricious God.

              We also know his changing appearance: that Abraham met him in human form at Mamre: that he was a warrior passim in the Deuteronomist account: that Moses met him as a sapphire stone: that he was a burning bush (even though St. Justin Martyr thinks that was Jesus): that he was some sort of Gorgon in Exodus 33:23 in which you are only allowed to look on God’s arse (a joke coined in the Rabbinic Judaism tradition, for which you have to give them a bit of credit): that Daniel thought of him as an old guy with a beard – the Ancient of Days: that the Synoptics allege that Jesus thought roughly the same thing – ‘Abba’, Father.

              It’s almost as if we can make up any nature or appearance we want of God: and we do. And the less powerful God is, as we move slowly from theocracy to democracy, the more benign and ineffable God becomes: the characteristics we ascribe to God move from Anglo-Saxon roots to Latinate etymology. But the euphemistic feel of the language of the transcendence is no more convincing of God’s presence in that tiny amount of time before Inflation than the brutal but highly influential and xenophobic historian who is your religion’s real genesis (and who quite probably was not a monotheist).

              I can disclose that God is so wrathful at the BICEP scientists’ presumption that all previous religions are off: last Friday he revealed himself, and his covenant is now only with me. I know his nature and appearance and will demonstrate it in whatever form I choose: it will be internally consistent, but unfortunately I predict disagreements.

              Slaínte.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

            That would not get a passing grade in any class except a theology class. History classes wouldn’t buy it either.

        • Vaal
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, but that is, like the Trinity, is just incoherent. Appealing to it’s “tradition,” whether true of tradition or not, doesn’t alter this problem.

          Theology often comes off as the exercise of stringing together words that the believer wants attached to his God – loving, personal, immaterial, transcendent of time and space, beyond personal or human ken, yet
          about which platitudes can be spoken, etc –
          and voila…God has these properties! Whether they all make sense together or not.

          Have any trouble making all those attributes makes sense together? Well you just aren’t open to embracing “mystery” or acknowledging our limited ken in face of the God.

          It can’t be that the religious person is being incoherent. No, that is too prosaic
          a conclusion.

          Vaal

          • Fr Aidan Kimel
            Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

            Vaal, I’m not interested in persuading you that the Christian God is “coherent,” according to your criteria. That’s just pure silliness, and I will not play that game.

            I’m happy to discuss these matters in a serious, non-combative way; but I suspect that can’t happen here. Come on over to my blog and we’ll continue the conversation.

            • Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

              Is that an admission that the Christian God is incoherent? :-D

              /@

            • Posted March 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

              Vaal, Im not interested in persuading you that the Christian God is coherent, according to your criteria. Thats just pure silliness, and I will not play that game.

              Is it really that much to ask, that one provide a coherent definition of the central figure of a discussion?

              Any competent scientist can (and will be delighted to) start off with a perfectly coherent definition of the basic principles of the subject. Jerry, for example, will tell you about how Evolution is both the fact that populations change over time and the explanatory theory that holds that beneficial changes are statistically more likely to survive to later generations than other changes. Sean Carroll wants everybody to know that physics, at its heart, is all about various fields and forces, and that what we perceive as “particles” are really harmonic fluctuations in those fields.

              But you want to discuss Christian beliefs about gods without even being able to pretend that the very notion of gods are coherent in the first place?

              And you’re expecting us to take you seriously…why, exactly?

              b&

            • Vaal
              Posted March 25, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

              Fr Aidan Kimel,

              I’ve taken you up on your offer:

              https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/the-why-of-god/#comment-7886

              Cheers,

              Vaal

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 25, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

                Looks like you must be in moderation over there–no comment that I can see.

              • Posted March 25, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

                I just posted a comment there, as well. It says it’s awaiting moderation.

                Be curious to see if it ever sees the light of day. If it’s not there by the time I think about it tomorrow morning, I’ll post it here….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted March 26, 2014 at 12:47 am | Permalink

                Both appeared. Good comments. Vaal wrote a near-definitive essay. Ben: I loved this: ** this ground of being took human form a couple millennia ago in a backwater of the Roman empire, acted exactly like a garden-variety Pagan demigod to get everybodys attention (which nobody at the time actually noticed) **

                /@

                /@

              • Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

                Thanks. I don’t remember who, but at least somebody here has recently been making the point that the ground round of beast god may not be anthropomorphic but Jesus sure as shit is, and I thought that was a good one to make in this context.

                b&

              • Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

                Nicely phrased, though. You condensed several different arguments that have been widely aired in the past.

                /@

              • Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

                Thanks!

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 26, 2014 at 1:01 am | Permalink

                Eager to see if Kimel responds to either Vaal & Ben!

        • Sastra
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

          Aquinas makes clear that we cannot know what God is and thus can only say what he is not… all Christian theologians believe that the unknowable God has made revealed himself in various ways–hence all the positive things that Christian theologians are willing to attribute of God

          So we can only say what God is not but we can also attribute positive traits to God. This is a contradiction: to reconcile it doesn’t require depth and profundity, but that one floats across the surface.

    • Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      This doesnt mean that Hart believes in an impersonal God (quite the contrary), but it does mean that he does not understand God as an inflated human person.

      In other words, Hart is most skilled at the fine art of doublethink.

      (Not so) good for him; but why should anybody else pay him any mind?

      b&

      • kelskye
        Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        It does sound very much like someone is trying to have their cake as well as eat it. Why would personal language work if God is a completely one-of-a-kind thing that doesn’t have any of the characteristics that go into personhood? To say “God’s like a person” only begs the question of what ways the comparison holds. Otherwise appealing to analogy is going to fail. We can understand that a gene isn’t literally selfish, for example, but we understand the analogy because we have a literal description of how genes work and know where selfish is useful for understanding and where it is not. How does it apply to God? So it’s made even worse if God is beyond our comprehension – we have no means of grounding the analogy.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      He sees the anthropomorphic dangers in the theistic personalism approach. This doesn’t mean that Hart believes in an impersonal God (quite the contrary), but it does mean that he does not understand God as an inflated human person.

      From what I can tell then Hart (and by implication “classic theism”) sees God as a combination of what we mean by Existence coupled with mental attributes such as intention, love, cognition, consciousness, creativity, etc. The basic nature of reality itself is mind-like.

      Is this more or less what we’ve got when all the self-gratifying handwaving and moaning about Mystery is removed?

  34. Kevin
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I completely “get” Hart’s god.

    I don’t believe in that one, either.

    Completely uncompelling argument.

  35. Wylann
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I’m going to assume that xians aren’t allowed to argue for religion unless they’ve also read this book and can express the ideas in their own words. No?

    Screw it. Thanks for taking (another) one for the team.

  36. Posted March 25, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I think he is a Thomist at heart when he states God is beyond finite comprehension. Aquinas also proposed that the “created” mind could never comprehend the divine nature of God. To say that there is an empirical measure of God would be divine itself and therefore impossible. Even though “scientists have the tools and the system for sussing out the truths about nature” is futile in this argument. I think your question is important: “why we should think that this god exists” in the context of evolutionary theory. Is this concept, regardless of truth, a detriment or benefit? If detrimental, can we assume the opposite secular view will be of greater utility? Believers will argue that the concept of God is a caring and just but humanity is its own downfall.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I think he is a Thomist at heart when he states God is beyond finite comprehension. Aquinas also proposed that the “created” mind could never comprehend the divine nature of God. To say that there is an empirical measure of God would be divine itself and therefore impossible. Even though “scientists have the tools and the system for sussing out the truths about nature” is futile in this argument.

      What tool or method do you use in determining what is futile and what is not in this debate?

      I think your question is important: “why we should think that this god exists” in the context of evolutionary theory. Is this concept, regardless of truth, a detriment or benefit? If detrimental, can we assume the opposite secular view will be of greater utility? Believers will argue that the concept of God is a caring and just but humanity is its own downfall.

      If the truth is irrelevant in regards to how we perceive the world and live our lives, how would you then determine whether the two are on collision course. In other words, what justification do you have that allows you to ignore the truth and endorse a lie?

      • Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Thomists say the existence of god is beyond the comprehension of humanity. But the philosophical tenets of religion are within the bounds of human reason. By implementing these concepts of moral good can it have beneficial effects? If the some say that practice of religious principles are exclusionary and detrimental obviously they would side with secularists. Morality will still exist regardless of the existence of god? yes/no? I would say yes, that is a truth.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Thomists say the existence of god is beyond the comprehension of humanity. But the philosophical tenets of religion are within the bounds of human reason.

          The philosophical tenets of religion are ultimately founded on the belief that there is a god.

          Claiming that we can never know whether it exists or not while at the same time asserting that it does in fact exist and that we can know about it’s nature is dishonest and an oxymoronic deepity, imo.

          They claim to think one thing, but act as if it isn’t true. Theology’s biggest problem isn’t the rise of atheism, it’s religion.

          • Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            It is quite the paradox and maybe it was Aquinas saying to the faithful don’t worry about understanding how God exists but realize that he does exist and that is the basis of faith. I feel that morality exists outside the context of a god but if people choose to believe in the context of a God that is their right. Theology’s biggest problem isn’t religion it’s political manipulation of religion.

            • Chris
              Posted March 26, 2014 at 6:14 am | Permalink

              Really?

              I’d have assumed that theology’s main problem is that it’s basic premise is either impossible to demonstrate or incomprehensible, depending on how it’s worded….

    • Fr Aidan Kimel
      Posted March 25, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      From the classical theistic view, evolutionary theory or the Big Bang or whatever is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a divine Creator or not. God (classically understood) is not an empirical hypothesis, nor does divine agency conflict in any way with creaturely agency. It’s apples and oranges.

      • Posted March 25, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        So, if you God is not an empirical hypothesis, what does He do? What is He for?

        /@

      • Sastra
        Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        If God is not an empirical hypothesis then that means that God doesn’t explain anything. But you believe that God is the explanation for everything. That doesn’t somehow remove God from the realm of evidence and reason. That would only happen if God was so basic and obvious that it’s not a controversial idea.

        But God IS a controversial idea. You can’t dismiss atheism as a form of perversity. Naturalism is an alternative hypothesis… a very strong, robust, well-evidenced one.

      • Posted March 25, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Creator (n) “A person or thing that creates”.

        Any claim of the form X created Y is a scientific hypothesis, assuming that Y is or has been a part of reality. i.e. it is an a posteriori claim that a particular event actually occurred and we can be confident in it’s veracity only to the extent that we have empirical evidence that favours that hypothesis over other ones.

      • Chris
        Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        “From the classical theistic view, evolutionary theory or the Big Bang or whatever is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a divine Creator or not.”

        Evolutionary theory does not hold that there is any supernatural interference (application of souls, whatever) in humans. Ditto with cosmology.

        The problem here is that seeing how the cosmos appears to work, the divine creator is irrelevant whether it exists* or not.

        “God (classically understood) is not an empirical hypothesis, nor does divine agency conflict in any way with creaturely agency.”

        Empirical means measurable. If you cannot measure it you cannot demonstrate that it exists. This absolutely conflicts with any claim that the deity intervenes in physical reality as per your holy book, assuming that you are a Christian.

        What you claim here is that this god is either equivalent to the cosmos, or non-existent.

        “It’s apples and oranges.”

        Only because you are claiming that some apples are oranges, and that they don’t exist anywhere that we can actually see/taste/experience them.

        * Exists is a loaded word in theology, I have noticed. You seem to be arguing, at the bare minimum, for an entity to exist in a way that redefines the word “exist” in all other usage that we have for it. This wouldn’t be a problem equivocation didn’t happen.

        • Chris
          Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          Sigh: This wouldn’t be a problem *if* equivocation didn’t happen.

          • Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

            Exists is a loaded word in theology. Yes, do ideas and thoughts exist are they measurable? Do they drive individuals to actions?

            • Michael Fugate
              Posted March 26, 2014 at 11:21 am | Permalink

              So god is just an idea – a thought created by a material brain?

              • Posted March 26, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

                Do they need empiric evidence to exist? Or is the fact they are created in the mind enough to say they exist. Clearly, they can have powerful effects. I’m sure philosophers can provide an answer.

              • Michael Fugate
                Posted March 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

                i just listened to the conversation between Hart and Norman in the link below. Nothing Hart says provides a solid reason to believe God is anything other than a creation of the human brain. Of course ideas, can have powerful effects – still this doesn’t say anything about the existence of transcendent beings outside the human brain.

            • Chris
              Posted March 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

              This wasn’t what I was getting at. Apologies, maybe I should have been clearer.

              “Exists is a loaded word in theology. Yes, do ideas and thoughts exist are they measurable? Do they drive individuals to actions?”

              I am not questioning whether ideas – either as brain states or as concepts that may be communicated or acted upon – exist at some level. We could argue about nominalism or substance dualism, but the idea of an “idea” can be defined either way.

              My problem with “exist”, per theology, is that when it’s applied to a deity, the spirit, etc, it conflicts with every other use of the word “exist” in other ways. If something is atemporal, aphysical, etc, it’s actually non-existent by any other definition.

              My problem with equivocation is that the theist tends to switch between the theological and everyday definitions without necessarily specifying that they are doing so. In fact, I would contend that the theological definition of “exist” is actually completely incoherent!

              • Chris
                Posted March 26, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                And, to make it more… annoying when dealing with Sophisticated Theologians, is that the everyday believer absolutely claims that “god” “exists” is a temporal/physical fashion.

                Plank in your eye, and all that!

                It’s hilarious that the STs are perfectly willing too have people believe in completely the wrong thing (by their writing), while bitching at us for pointing this out to them. Did I say hilarious? Maybe I meant hypocritical.

  37. strongforce
    Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    An interesting discussion between Hart and Norman.

  38. Friendlypig
    Posted March 26, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Sorry Professor, I haven’t read the entire post but to quote Peter Boghassian: if you make truth claims for things that you couldn’t possibly know, you are merely pretending.

    What would William of Occam have said?

    Is God real?

    Does god exist in the natural world like you and I.

    Yes? Then god is bound by the laws of physics, therefore not a God.

    No? Then God does not exist.

    Seemples.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] “New Atheist” and author of the popular book Why Evolution is True, is seriously immersing himself in theology by studying Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Coyne is in the […]

  2. […] initial response (now he has started […]

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