Here we ago again: it’s my last day in Poland and I’m compelled by the Universe to take on yet another set of arguments for God—arguments set out in a piece that reader Steve sent me with the comment: “weapons grade horseshit.”
And indeed, this is equine excreta of the WMD class, set out in an article by Damon Linker in The Week magazine: “Memo to atheists: God’s not dead yet” (subtitle: “A new book exposes a major fallacy in atheist thinking.”)
We’ve met Linker before on this site, and if you look at his articles at This Week, you’ll see they include a variety of religious apologetics and conservative pieces, including this especially noxious specimen: “How growing support for gay rights restricts religious freedom.” Have a look at that bit of tone-trolling. (Linker’s website notes that his specialty is “faith and politics.”)
So why is God still alive and kicking? What is “the major fallacy in atheist thinking”? Once again, it’s the claim that we atheists have not encountered the “strongest case for God,” so we have failed miserably. Our attacks on God, we hear, are on the most puerile, straw-mannish sort of God: the Bearded Man in the Sky. Apparently everyone knows that’s wrong—except for the vast majority of religionists who still accept it!
Linker begins with the (to him) dispiriting rise in the proportion of “nones”—Americans without religious affiliation:
For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.
One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.
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. Ergo, atheists are going after the wrong brand of faith.
Some critics of atheism have drawn an analogy to particle physics, saying that only a tiny fraction of physics-friendly laypeople really understand what physicists are saying about stuff like cosmic inflation or string theory. Therefore, if only a few professional physicists know what they’re talking about, then only the Sophisticated Theologians™ know what they’re talking about.
But this analogy fails, for theologians aren’t any better armed to perceive the “truth” about God than is any reasonably intelligent layperson. There is no possible training that can give you more expertise in discerning the True Nature of the Divine. Further, even the Sophisticated Theologians™ disagree among themselves about what we know and what we don’t—disagreement you won’t find among physicists.
So what are these Best Arguments For God that, says Linker, Hart’s new book demonstrates? You’re going to laugh, but there are just two, both lame. We atheists needn’t start worrying yet.
1. Many religions share the same conceptions of God.
Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)
As if this “commonly shared cluster of claims” proves that God exists! There is, first of all, the possibility of cultural inheritance among people: the idea of a supernatural agent that could have been handed down from our common ancestors. Further, the idea of “agency,” which people like Pascal Boyer see as an evolved tendency in our species, could also have given rise to this claim, even though there was no supernatural agent.
But Linker doesn’t emphasize those very profound differences between concepts of God, or that some “religions” barely have such a concept (Buddhists, for example, vary among sects). Hindus believe in multiple gods. The ancient Greeks did, too—and some of their gods were far from omnibenevolent, even nasty or mischievous. How much disparity between “gods” can there be before Linker and Hart would accept that those differences cannot support the “reality” of a God? As usual, theologians can rationalize anything as evidence for their god, but will not tell us what observations could falsify its existence.
2. God isn’t a person in the sky, but a Ground of Being. But haven’t we heard that from Tillich? Here’s what Linker (via Hart) sees as the Killer Argument for God:
The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
Scientists are heroically proficient at detecting the laws that govern the natural world. They interrogate phenomena, trace effects back to their contingent causes, and then those causes back to even prior causes, developing and testing theories that seek to explain the temporal sequence. In the case of cosmology, that sequence extends all the way back to origins of the universe — to the first contingent cause of every subsequent cause over the past 13.82 billion years or so.
God concerns something else entirely. He is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.
On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp, but Hart does an exceptionally good job of explaining it — as he does the way this classical idea of God makes sense of the experience and unity of consciousness, as well as the ecstatic longing for the good and the beautiful that lies at the heart of moral experience.
Where does one begin? (Perhaps one shouldn’t.) Are we to take as “religious belief” the claims of only the most sophisticated theologians (who don’t include, by the way, people like William Lane Craig), or of the majority of believers? Most “regular” believers adhere to an anthropomorphic God: one who has emotions, the ability to do things, concerns for our well being, a special love for H. sapiens and a code of ethics that we should follow. People like Hart and Linker say that we should ignore such beliefs, even though it is precisely those beliefs that produce the major harms of religion. Dispel the religiosity of normal people and replace it with that of Sopisticated Theology™, and much of religion’s malevolence will vanish. And that is precisely what many of the New Atheists are trying to do. I wouldn’t much mind living in a world whose only believers were Kierkegaards, Shelby Spongs, or Tillichs, but that isn’t the way religion plays out on our planet.
Further, on what basis are we to trust that those who say that God is a “ground of being”, the “unconditioned cause of reality” rather than just a disembodied human-like entity? How do theologians know that? After all, they’re working not from an esoteric knowledge of stuff like particle physics, but from materials accessible to every reasonably sentient being: revelation and scripture.
I don’t see where, for instance, the Bible tells us that “God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.” That is simply fancy language for “I don’t know what God is, but I’m going to use some fancy words to impress you and to make God impervious to disproof.” That, I suppose, is why people like Tillich are so popular: they confect an idea of God (based, of course, on nothing other than what they’d like to believe) that comports with what intelligent believers realize: we have no evidence for any kind of God. Then they refine this idea so that nothing can disprove it, but that virtually every observation confirms it. It’s God as a pseudoscience, like UFO abduction. It is a hallmark of crank science and pseudoscience that believers see “proof” everywhere, but will not consider counterevidence.
Here’s, according to Linker and Hart, is the theological vaccination that immunizes religion against disproof:
The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) “that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.”
Well, we already know that, throughout history, there were many religions whose idea of god was not of a loving, omnipotent being. But, more important, there are very good non-goddy reasons for people to have notions of truth, goodness, and beauty. These including both evolution and secular reason. E.O. Wilson suggests, for instance, that we find “beautiful” those places most congenial for us to inhabit; “beauty” in people can correlate with their ability to reproduce; beauty in music and art can appeal to our evolved emotions; and “goodness” can derive from both evolved feelings of morality as well as our ability to reason about what behaviors are salubrious versus harmful.
If you’re going to see confirmation of God in “truth, goodness, and beauty,” then do you see disconfirmation of god in those who don’t pursue truth, or who, like theologians, ignore truth in preference to what they want to be true? What about those who long for ugliness or misery, like the Taliban or Nazis? Those people, too, were “united in a concept of God”. They believed in God, yet they didn’t seek the good. Did God “ground” the Holocaust?
It all comes down to this: ask theologians what evidence could you find in people’s beliefs, or in their behavior, that would make those theologians reject their notion of God, whether it be the anthropomorphic God of most believers or the “ground of being” God of Tillich and Hart?
And ask theologians to explain what they mean when they emit things like this bafflegab:
God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
If that is their conclusion about what God is, what would disprove it? If they say it can’t be disproved, then ask them how they know it’s true? What does it mean to say that God “grounds the existence of every contingent thing”, and what would the universe look like if God wasn’t there to ground it?
What we see in the indented paragraph above is simply a group of fine-sounding but meaningless words, which, after all, is what theologians are paid to produce. I could make up an equally fine-sounding paragraph showing that God is malevolent, apathetic, or the source of evil in this world, and with just as much justification.
Regarding theology, one can’t adduce these words of Christopher Hitchens too often: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” The words of Hart, at least as interpreted by Linker, constitute a blatant and assured assertion without a shred of evidence. There is no reason for us to accept the idea of God as a “ground of being,” especially since its proponents can’t even tell us what it means.
If this is the “strongest case for God” that theologians can produce, then we need pay them no heed. In fact, this is not a new argument for God at all, for there are no new ones. All have failed, and we atheists know it. The only people who don’t are the theologians like Hart and their acolytes like Linker, who keep searching desperately for new buttresses to prop up what they want to be true.