The most common critique leveled at New Atheists is that we attack only puerile, fundamentalist forms of religion, and never engage with the “best” arguments of the faithful: those adumbrated by Sophisticated Theologians™. Never mind that most believers accept a view of God far more anthropomorphic than a simple “ground of being” or a deistic entity that made the world and then refused to engage with it further. If you want data to support this, at least for U.S. Christians, go here. Polls consistently show that around 70-80% of Americans believe in the existence of Heaven, Hell, Satan, and angels. And let’s not even discuss whether the majority of Muslims think of Allah as a “ground of being” rather than as a disembodied ruler who tells them how to behave. Anyone who claims that regular monotheists view God like Karen Armstrong’s Apophatic Entity or Tillich’s Ground of Being simply hasn’t gotten out enough.
Further, it’s obvious that the bulk of harm committed in the name of religion is done by those not who see god as a Ground of Being, but rather as an anthropomorphic entity who has a personal relationship with his minions and supplies them with a moral system. For it is the belief that God has wishes for humanity, and a code of right and wrong, that drives people to do things like oppose abortion and stem cell research, deny rights to women and gays, burn “witches,” throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, and torture Catholics with guilt about masturbation and divorce.
The vast majority of believers don’t even read theology, and are barely aware of the arguments for God made by Sophisticated Theologians™. So is it our duty as atheists to refute those arcane theological arguments, or to prevent instead the harm done by religion? To me, the latter course is preferable. Still it’s both fun and intellectually profitable to read and refute the arguments of theologians, for it’s only there that one can truly see intelligence so blatantly coopted and corrupted to prove what one has decided beforehand must be true. Theology is the only academic discipline where people get paid not to investigate their beliefs, but to rationalize them. Certainly it’s more useful for atheists to point out to “average” believers the lack of evidence for their faith—and that is precisely what Dawkins did in The God Delusion—but it’s more fun to chase the tails of obscurantists like Alvin Plantinga and John Haught.
And now, apparently, their ranks include David Bentley Hart, who has written a new book that’s being touted as the most Sophisticated and Irrefutable Evidence for God Ever. The book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and although I haven’t yet read it (believe me, I will, and have ordered it), I posted a critique of Damon Linker’s blurb for the book that appeared in The Week magazine.
Another encomium has just arrived for Hart’s book, this time from Oliver Burkeman, who writes at the Guardian that The Experience of God is “The one theology book all atheists really should read.” I’m not sure whether Burkeman is an atheist, but his piece comes across as pure faitheism: “you atheists won’t make any headway until you come to grips with the arguments for God made by people like Hart.” For Hart has presented the Best Case for God, and until we’ve refuted it we lack all credibility. As Burkeman argues:
Yet prominent atheists display an almost aggressive lack of curiosity when it comes to the facts about belief. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins expertly demolishes what he calls ‘the God hypothesis’, but devotes only a few sketchy anecdotes to establishing that this God hypothesis is the one that has defined religious belief through history, or defines it around the world today. AC Grayling insists that atheists are excused the bother of actually reading theology – where they might catch up on debates among believers about what they believe – because atheism “rejects the premise” of theology. And when The Atlantic ran a piece last year entitled Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God, Jerry Coyne, the atheist blogosphere’s Victor Meldrew, called it “the world’s worst advice.” And on and on it goes.
I had to look up Victor Meldrew, who turns out to be a BBC sitcom character known for being a curmudgeon—though he had every right (like me) to be curmudgeonly. And does Burkeman realize that I spent several years reading theology before I decided that it was a mind-numbing and largely worthless exercise? It’s not like I haven’t heard their Best Arguments. And when you master one, theologians suddenly decide that there’s an even better Best Argument. The process is never ending.
But on to our failures, as seen by Burkeman:
My modest New Year’s wish for 2014, then, is that atheists who care about honest argument – and about maybe actually getting somewhere in these otherwise mind-numbingly circular debates – might consider reading just one book by a theologian, David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, published recently by Yale University Press. Not because I think they’ll be completely convinced by it. (I’m not, and I’m certainly not convinced by Hart’s other publicly expressed views, which tend towards the implacably socially conservative.) They should read it because Hart marshals powerful historical evidence and philosophical argument to suggest that atheists – if they want to attack the opposition’s strongest case – badly need to up their game.
But what exactly does he mean by “the opposition’s strongest case”? I can think of three ways to construe that:
1. The case that provides the strongest evidence for God’s existence. This is the way scientists would settle an argument about existence claims: by adducing data. This category’s best argument for God used to be the Argument from Design, since there was no plausible alternative to God’s creation of the marvelous “designoid” features of plants and animals. But Darwin put paid to that one in 1859. Theologians now rely on arguments involving the fine-tuning of the universe or the supposed “innate morality” of human beings, but we have good secular explanations for these.
2. The philosophical argument that is most tricky, or hardest to refute: in other words, the argument for God that has the greatest degree of sophistry. This used to include the Ontological Arguments, which briefly stymied even Bertrand Russell. But we soon realized that “existence is not a quality,” and that, in fact, claims about an entity’s existence can be settled only by observation or testing, not by logic.
3. The argument that is irrefutable because it’s untestable. Given that arguments in the first two categories are now untenable, people like Hart have proposed conceptions of God that are so nebulous that we can’t figure out what they mean. And because they are not only obscure but don’t say anything tangible about the how God interacts with the cosmos, they can’t be refuted. To any rationalist or scientist, this automatically rules them out of rational consideration, for if an observation comports with everything, and can’t be disproven, it is totally useless as an explanation for anything. I might as well say that there’s an invisible teddy bear who sustains the universe, and without my Ineffable Teddy there would be no cosmos. But nobody can see that Bear, for he is the Ursine Ground of Being: ineffable and undetectable even though his Bearness permeates and supports everything. Without that Bear, the universe could not function, much less exist.
And this, in fact, is what Hart has apparently done in his new book. Burkeman summarizes Hart’s Irrefutable God by quoting Linker’s characterization of it:
… 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.
Reread that paragraph, particularly the last line, and then see if you can explain it to one of your friends. Not only is it meaningless (I’ll read Hart’s book to see if I can suss out any meaning), but it’s also untestable. And there is not an iota of evidence for such a God, so on what ground should we believe it? Hart claims that this is the conception of God that has prevailed throughout most of history, but I seriously doubt that. Aquinas, Luther, Augustine: none of those people saw God in such a way. And it’s certainly not the view that prevails now, as you can easily see by Googling a few polls. I can make up yet another God with just as much supporting evidence as Hart’s: assume that God is a deistic God who has always been there but has done nothing. He didn’t even create the universe: he let that happen according to the laws of physics, from which universes can arise via fluctuations in a quantum vacuum. My God is just sitting there, watching over us all, but only for his amusement. He’s undetectable, ineffable, indolent, and easily bored.
I claim that this Coyneian God is just as valid as Hart’s God, for neither can be tested, and thus there’s no reason to believe in either.
As Burkeman notes, Hart has removed God from the class of entities that exist and transformed Him into merely an Idea: a philosophical concept that can be subject only to philosophical arguments:
God, in short, isn’t one very impressive thing among many things that might or might not exist; “not just some especially resplendent object among all the objects illuminated by the light of being,” as Hart puts it. Rather, God is “the light of being itself”, the answer to the question of why there’s existence to begin with.
. . . Since I can hear atheist eyeballs rolling backwards in their sockets with scorn, it’s worth saying again: the point isn’t that Hart’s right. It’s that he’s making a case that’s usually never addressed by atheists at all. If you think this God-as-the-condition-of-existence argument is rubbish, you need to say why. And unlike for the superhero version, scientific evidence won’t clinch the deal. The question isn’t a scientific one, about which things exist. It’s a philosophical one, about what existence is and on what it depends.
Hart’s god, therefore, is immune to refutation. Whether God “is” now depends, as Bill Clinton anticipated, on what your definition of “is” is.
But this is all a stupendous confidence game. Not only is Hart wrong in claiming that his conception of God is the one embraced most consistently through “the history of monotheism,” but, as everyone should know, how widely something is accepted is no evidence for its validity. For the vast majority of modern history, women were viewed as intellectually inferior beings. But that is simply a culturally-conditioned belief that supports no argument for female inferiority. Likewise, just because some Sophisticated Theologians™ agreed on God as a Sustainer of the Universe and Ground of All Being does not make it so. Why on earth does that argument have any force at all?
Burkeman (and Hart) note that one way to dismiss Hart’s argument that only a minority of believers accept the Ground-of-Being God is “to prove the point with survey data about what people believe.” Well, I just did that above, and could adduce much more data of the same sort. Western monotheists usually believe in a personal and anthropomorphic God—one who has humanlike emotions, cares about us, and wants us to behave in certain ways. So Hart’s argument fails in the only way it can be tested. But we’re supposed to dismiss it on another ground—a dismissal that’s impossible since Hart has made his concept irrefutable:
But second, even if you could show that most believers believe in a superhero God, would that mean it’s the only kind with which atheists need engage? If a committed creationist wrote a book called The Evolution Delusion, but only attacked the general public’s understanding of evolution, we’d naturally dismiss them as disingenuous. We’d demand, instead, that they seek out what the best and most acclaimed minds in the field had concluded about evolution, then try dismantling that. Which is also why atheists should read Hart’s book: to deny themselves the lazy option of sticking to easy targets.
As I’ve pointed out before, these situations are not comparable. The arguments for evolution are based on evidence, not philosophy, and can be comprehended by the average person: one who, for example, read my book Why Evolution is True. Hart’s arguments are simply made-up stuff, and even though he’s smart and uses big words, there is no more evidence for his God than there is for the anthropomorphic Gods of Alvin Plantinga, Pat Robertson, and Rick Warren.
In other words, the difference in expertise between theologians and “average” believers is small—not nearly as great as the difference in expertise between professional evolutionists and science-friendly laypeople. The difference between theologians and believers is not their differential acquaintance with the truth about God, but the greater acquaintance of theologians with the history of theology. People like Hart, despite their intelligence, have no more handle on the nature of God than do Joe and Sally in the street. Theologians are, as we all know, simply confecting things about God, and then selling them using fancy words and their academic credentials. Let Hart give us one bit of evidence that he has greater insight into God than, say, Rick Warren, and then I’ll pay attention to what he has to say. Otherwise, I see Hart as retreating to the Last Redoubt of the Theologian: the definition of God as something that is immune to all disproof—and thus subject to Hitchens’ Razor: “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Isaac Chotiner has pointed out some of these problems in a new piece in these pages that is also based on Linker’s blurb for Hart: “The case for God’s existence is empowering atheists.” Chotiner agrees that Hart has simply redefined God in a way that immunizes Him against disproof, equating God with emotions shared by many people:
Linker continues with this: “In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be ‘wholly and coherently rejected’ — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.”
If this is not tautologous enough for you, try [Linker's] comment:
“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.’”
Here I would turn again to Linker’s comment implying that the “major world religions” have a view of God similar to the one that Linker lays out above. If you think this is the case, ask yourself how many major world religions will consider you a believer in their particular faiths just because you merely state that you “seek the good,” which I would hope nearly all of us do.
In summary, Linker is unable to make a case for God that doesn’t define God as such an intrinsic part of the universe (“truth, goodness, and beauty”) that God exists by definition. If I were a religious believer, I would likely neither appreciate the concessions that Linker has made, nor go along with his account of my beliefs.
Chotiner is absolutely correct. If you define God as simply the set of our most admirable aspirations, then of course God exists. But you could also define God as the set of our most unpalatable aspirations: greed, duplicity, criminality, and so on. And that kind of god could also exist by definition: as the Ground of All Evil. I claim that, in fact, there’s just as much evidence for that god as there is for Hart’s “good” God. The reader might amuse herself by thinking of other kinds of irrefutable gods.
So if I had to ask Hart three questions, they would be these:
1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that the former God is the one most people have accepted throughout history.)
2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?
3. What would convince you that the god you describe doesn’t exist?
Let a theologian, for once, answer the best arguments of atheists: those that involve the question, “How do you know that?”
Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. He is the author of Why Evolution is True and Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.