Author Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about a mystical moment she had when young. Dead tired from skiing and probably hypoglycemic, she saw the world “flame into life,” and was suddenly infused with the furious beauty of the world. Although an atheist, Ehrenreich suggested that she had experienced something truly beyond the present ken of science, but perhaps something that science might one day illuminate.
But to Times columnist Ross Douthat, an observant Catholic, that kind of talk is a no-no, for it still makes God amenable to scientific inquiry. In Douthat’s recent piece, “How to study the numinous,” he therefore tells us where Ehrenreich went wrong. Douthat’s argument draws heavily on David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. That book has been heavily touted as the one text that atheists must confront if they’re to address the most serious and irrefutable arguments for God.
I’ve just finished Hart’s book, and it’s hardly a compelling argument for God. It is in fact a series of recycled “proofs” of God couched in fancy and often arrogant language. Hart claims repeatedly that his book was not meant to give evidence for God, but merely to distill the common essence of God shared by all major faiths. And Hart claims that such an essence can truly be found: It’s God as a transcendent and largely ineffable Ground of All Being, above all things yet immanent in them. Nor is this Tillich-ian deity in any way like a person, although Hart calls it a “he” and argues that it’s capable of anthropomorphic feelings like love. But despite his disclaimer, Hart is indeed deeply concerned with giving evidence for God. He brings up the cosmological argument (something that is itself uncaused had to get the universe started) as well as the existence of things like consciousness, rationality, and our love of beauty—all things that, argues Hart, could never be explained by naturalism. Indeed, at times Hart seems to claim that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, a tactic that completely immunizes his views from disproof. I could just as well claim that God is the sense of accomplishment I get when writing a piece like this, or the enjoyment I derive from a good Havana cigar.
Hart’s book, then, is a sophisticated version of old God-of-the-Gaps arguments, and it’s gained traction because of two things: Hart’s exceedingly rarified notion of God (one shared by almost no believers but admired because it can’t be refuted); and his well-written—and sometimes pedantic—reiteration of shopworn arguments about phenomena that supposedly elude science, and can hence be peddled to a new generation of believers as signs of God. Further, Hart doesn’t argue for the existence of his own God (he’s an Eastern Orthodox Christian), so we are stymied in understanding why he holds the faith he does. He’s also cagey when dealing with his personal beliefs: When it comes time to tell us what he thinks about miracles, for example, he simply “draws the veil of authorial discretion” in front of his thoughts.
But back to Douthat. Hart’s influence on him is clear in the following dismissal of science’s attempts to understand religious phenomena:
Which is not to say that science is helpless in the face of all supernatural claims and possibilities. Its methods are very good at debunking the claims of people—professional psychics and alleged practitioners of telekinesis, most notably—who insist that they have rendered the numinous predictable and found a way to consistently harness invisible powers to visible ends. But this debunking is possible because of what’s being claimed by the Uri Gellers of the world—a pretty-much-consistent power, with mostly-consistent results, that’s under direct human control. When you’re dealing with experiences that nobody really claims are predictable, and that at least seem—as Ehrenreich suggests—to represent a kind of breaking-in from outside rather than an expression of human gifts or willpower, the same debunking logic just doesn’t apply.
So by all means, neuroscientists should seek to understand mystical experiences, as they should seek to understand every other sort of experience … but absent a revolutionary breakthrough in the science of consciousness, for the foreseeable future the best way to actually penetrate any distance into mystical phenomena will probably continue to be the twofold path of direct investigation and secondhand encounter. By direct investigation, of course, I mean personal prayer and meditation, which is the major path to knowledge if the major religious traditions are right about what’s going on here, and probably a useful path to some sort of knowledge even if they’re not.
In this way, Douthat renders his God impossible to disprove. Forget about the vexing argument from evil, the scientific tests showing the inefficacy of prayer, or God’s notable absence in the world. You can’t apply science to God because He reveals himself unpredictably.
Yet that’s specious because, although personal revelations might be unpredictable, the kind of God that emerges from them, if such revelations are really a source of truth, should be pretty consistent across religions. It isn’t. As we all know, the nature, desires, and moral dicta of each religion’s god are different, and often contradictory. Douthat further claims that personal prayer and meditation are “paths to knowledge.” But if they are indeed paths to understanding what’s true, then that “knowledge” should again be consistent among different people’s revelations. And again, it isn’t. I won’t reiterate how the basic tenets of different faiths conflict, except to give one example. If you’re a Muslim and think that Jesus was the son of God and was resurrected after the crucifixion, you’ll go to hell. (Muslims, in fact, don’t think that Jesus was ever crucified.) But if you’re a certain type of Christian, you think precisely the opposite: that accepting Jesus as God’s divine son and savior is the only way to get to heaven.
Anyone who argues that prayer and meditation are paths to knowledge about the divine has no idea what “knowledge” really means. Douthat’s caveat—that maybe, if this path is wrong (how would we know?), there’s still “some sort of knowledge” to be salvaged—doesn’t hold water. Precisely which knowledge is to be accepted, and which trashed? We have no way of knowing.
Douthat’s “secondhand encounter” road to understanding God is the same path William James trod in The Varieties of Religious Experience: study the experiences of mystics and those who have had religious revelations. As Douthat says:
In the case of the numinous, this means reading actual mystics and religious texts, reading novelists and poets and essayists who take up these experiences and themes, exploring theology and philosophy, delving into the sociology and anthropology and psychology of religious experience, and so on.
This comes up against the same problem. While these people may have had “mystical” experiences, they differ in content, so which “truths” can one discern in them, particularly if one can also get such experiences from drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain, or fatigue? (Read Michael Shermer’s experience of alien abduction during a long-distance bike race.)
Finally, Douthat quotes this passage from Hart’s book, one that occurs near the end:
In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness…
Now, apparently, it’s not sufficient to read and refute a specified book to credibly claim that we’re thoughtful atheists. No, now we must also engage in long-term prayer. Talk about moving the goalposts!
But how are we nonbelievers supposed to do that? How can we pray to a Ground of Being we don’t accept? How are we supposed to pray and leave ourselves open to grace with “the equanimity of faith” when we don’t have any faith? And what do Douthat and Hart make of all the many ex-believers who once prayed ardently but subsequently rejected their faith? Do their “experimental demonstrations” count as evidence against God?
This demand for incessant prayer is asking too much, and is a sneaky move on the part of Hart. First he claims that he’s not giving evidence for God. Then he tells us, at length, that the evidence is in fact readily available to everyone: The existence of consciousness, rationality, the love of beauty, and the fact that the universe had to begin somehow. Then, finally, he declares that we can’t fully absorb his arguments until we fall on our knees and make ourselves open to a God we don’t accept—and for a long time, too.
Forget it. If God wants us to know him, He wouldn’t require this three-step tomfoolery. And if we do what Hart says, and pray at length, and yet still remain atheists, what’s the next hurdle he’ll raise before us? Rest assured that there will be one, for if experience is any clue, another “best argument for God” will soon come down the pike, and we’ll have to deal with that one, too.
Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.