Do atheists reject the “wrong kind of God”? Not likely

Dorothy_0011b God-Satan Desk Signsby Daniel Linford

Why is it that some people do not believe in God? Some popular religious writers have claimed that atheists reject God because they were presented with the wrong kind of God. Atheists reject a god that is too small, it is claimed, and most have not considered the more sophisticated God that is really worth believing in. If only atheists considered the proper sort of deity, these authors insist, they would have long abandoned their atheism.

This is the position of several authors who have written popular books on the subject over the last two decades: Karen Armstrong [1], John Haught [2], and David Bentley Hart [3], to name a few. I think these authors are incorrect. There are good reasons for rejecting belief even in their gods. Here I will focus on Armstrong’s version, but several of my remarks will be applicable to a number of other theologies.

What sort of gods do these writers have in mind? If the wrong sort of God is “too small,” the right sort of God is much bigger: a radically transcendent being about which human languages can only speak indirectly. Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions of what a god might be like. God is so far beyond human comprehension, she insists, that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol. God, she tells us, “is the God beyond [our idolatrous conception of] God” [4].

Armstrong, and others of a similar view, are mystics who insist that the way that we speak of God comes in stages.

First, we speak of God directly: we might say “God is good,” where the word “good” means the same thing of God as it does when we talk about a virtuous human. Here we affirm one of God’s properties [5].

Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naive: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good.” Here we deny that God has some (human) property [6].

Many mystics insist that we should alternate between these two stages, affirming and denying, until we are left in a silence pointing to God. In the end, we learn that we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. Some theologians, such as Denys Turner [7] and Thomas Aquinas [8], have suggested that we do not even know what it means to say that God exists. Armstrong agrees. She writes that God is “not a being at all. […] We could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited” [9].

For Armstrong, because we cannot speak literally of God, we should resort to poetry, “which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do” [4]. It remains unclear, then, why Armstrong’s many books about God are not books of poetry.

If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist could not have rejected God after all. And a variety of traditional objections to theism, naturally, disappear as well.

For example, no longer could one say that the widespread suffering in our world is incompatible with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God because we would be unable to say what these properties indicate about God. If God is “all-knowing,” “all-powerful,” and “all-loving,” but in no way that we can understand, then, whatever that way is, it might be compatible with any degree of suffering whatsoever.

Still, the god of the mystical theologian, as I shall call it, is subject to at least three problems.

First, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, concerning a similar view, why should we think that God has this sort of transcendence — the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God — and not some other [10]? Armstrong’s theology seems to be nothing more than a vague assertion.

Plantinga continues by pointing out that a God beyond words is not coherent. Consider that the property of being God can be expressed in English. If mystical theologians insist that no property of God can be expressed in English, then the property of being God is not one of God’s properties. But how can God not be God? Similarly, God is not a bottle of beer. Yet mystical theologians could not say that God literally has the property of not being a bottle of beer. If none of the properties that we can attribute to God in human languages can be applied literally to God, then God is incoherent [11].

Second, the theist would have no reason to maintain belief in religious doctrines that had been provided only through divine revelation. Why not? As philosopher Erik Wielenberg has pointed out, there is a significant problem for revelation if we can know so little (nothing, really) about God. Consider the statement “God is good.” The mystical theologian insists that the word “good,” as it appears in this statement, cannot be understood by finite humans. If that is so, we cannot know what God’s goodness entails. For all we know, God may have reasons, beyond our comprehension, for lying to us [12].

But wait, you say, God cannot lie because God is morally perfect! I am not claiming that God lies. I am only claiming that believers have no reason to rule out the possibility of God lying. According to the view maintained by the mystical theologian, we cannot know what God’s moral perfection entails. It may be good, in a way that we cannot understand, for God to lie to us.

The mystical theologian wishes to say that God is truthful and trustworthy, but this would involve knowing things about God’s goodness which the mystical theologian maintains we cannot know. The mystical theologian may change her mind concerning what we can or cannot know about God, yet remember where we started. If we could more definitively say what God is, it would expose God to the atheist’s traditional objections (regardless of whether one finds them convincing or not).

If we cannot rule out the possibility of God lying to us, then we have no reason to trust those doctrines which humans learned about only through divine revelation. These include the Trinity, the Eucharist, the nature of the afterlife, and so on [13]. There would be little reason to accept Christianity, or any other traditional religion.

Armstrong does not appear to accept divine revelation in a traditional sense. For her, all of the world’s religions are each attempts to make sense of the same Divine Reality [14]. However, Armstrong would have to say that there is some sense in which the revelations made to each religion contain truths. But it is difficult to make sense of this position, given her take on God.

There is a related problem. Armstrong has written that, “[i]f a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job” [15]. But if we do not know what it means to talk about God’s goodness — or about any of God’s properties at all — why should we think that God is connected with the property “empathy and respect for all others”?

And now the third problem. Consider those doctrines for which we might have some evidence. This may include God’s hand in the creation and the maintenance of the universe or in miracles. Mystical theology entails that these cannot be evidence for God after all.

Consider some phenomena behind which one might suspect the handiwork of God. Such phenomena can only count as evidence for God if we have reason to think that God was likely to produce the phenomena in question. Indeed, if God was comparatively unlikely to produce some phenomenon, the latter may actually count as evidence against the existence of God. Yet mystical theology tells us that we cannot know what God is likely to do or to want. For all we know, any purported evidence of God’s presence is actually evidence of the contrary.

Mystical theologians may object that God is not to be inferred through evidence of design in nature (as Intelligent Design advocates insist) but is instead to be experienced [16]. This is no better: if we cannot know what sort of phenomena God is likely to produce then we cannot know what sort of experiences God is likely to trigger within us.

Mystical theologians should find it troubling that religious experience cannot provide us with reason to believe in God, but apparently they don’t. Both Armstrong and Haught argue that we can only come to know God experientially while at the same time implicitly barring the intelligibility of religious experience, thus leaving us without God.

Mystical theology gives us no justification for its radical (and seemingly incoherent) transcendence, without trust in scripture, without evidence for God, and without religious experience. Do atheists reject the wrong kind of God? How could we even know?

_____

Daniel Linford is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Thomas Nelson Community College. His main interests are in philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and early-modern atheism. Dan recently earned his master’s degree at Virginia Tech and is currently applying to PhD programs.

[1] Armstrong, K. (2009) The Case for God. New York: Random House.

[2] Haught has made this claim in a number of works, but see especially Haught, J. (2006) Is Nature Enough? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Hart, D.B. (2014) The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Grand Rapids: Yale University Press.

[4] NPR, Karen Armstrong builds a ‘case for god’.

[5] Armstrong, 2009, pp 125-126, 140-141.

[6] Ibid. Readers may be skeptical whether Armstrong states that God is “not good,” at least in any way that we understand. Yet she writes on the first page of the introduction to The Case for God: “[…] we don’t understand what we mean when we say that [God] is ‘good’, ‘wise,’ or ‘intelligent’” (2009, p ix).

[7] Turner, D. (2007) How to be an atheist. New Blackfriars 83:977-978.

[8] Aquinas, T. Summa Theologiae, 1a q3 prol.

[9] Armstrong, 2009, pp ix-x.

[10] Plantinga, A. (2000) Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See the discussion of Gordon Kauffman’s and John Hick’s theologies in chapter 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wielenberg’s argument was in response to skeptical theism: the conjunct of theism and the view that the kinds of goods, their interrelations, and their implications of which we are aware are not representative of the kinds of good, their interrelations, and their implications of which there are (Wielenberg, E. (2010) Skeptical theism and divine lines. Religious Studies 46(4):509-523; also see Hudson, H. (2012) The father of lies? Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 5:117-132). The mystical theology considered in this essay entails skeptical theism, or something very close to it.

[13] See, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the after-life in Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 1, Article 1. Of course, which doctrines are taken to be accessible only through revelation will depend upon the particular religion. See also the discussion on the distinction between natural and revealed theology in Brent, J. (2008). Natural theology. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[14] Armstrong states: “Many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call ‘God’ is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.” In the same article, she appears to imply that Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims use different symbols to approach the same transcendent reality.

[15] Armstrong, 2009, p xvii.

[16] Haught, 2006, pp 31-32.

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123 thoughts on “Do atheists reject the “wrong kind of God”? Not likely

  1. Nice article.

    I think though that the conversation is at an end as soon as they admit they do not know what it means to say that God exists, or what can be known about God. If this is so, then God is just like an algebraic x. There is an x. We don’t know anything about the x. There is therefore nothing to say about x and no reason to think about x. It’s an empty statement.

    We might as well equate such a God with an impersonal concept such as the universe or nature or the laws of physics or some such. This pantheistic God does seem to exist (although what leads people to think the concept of God remains useful when it is just another word for nature eludes me), and though perhaps we cannot ever know it completely, we can at least know aspects of it.

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  2. Hi Daniel,

    I agree. Except that you’re being too charitable to Armstrong, Haught and Bentley Hart. The whole point of such apophatic theology is to throw up a smokescreen of verbiage, such that they can pretend that behind the smoke there is substance. The last thing apophatic theologians want to do is discuss the claims on their merits; rather, they are trying to construct a conception of “God” that is quite literally meaningless and therefore unfalsifiable.

    If they can construct a conception of “God” that is entirely indistinguishable from not-God, then no possible atheist argument can dent their construct! Any argument for not-God is then equally an argument for their god. It is a tactic close to brilliance!

    At that point, they can sneer at the New Atheists for being simpletons who, lacking in intellectual sophistication, just don’t get it (see, for example, the blurb to the Bentley Hart book). Meanwhile, the smokescreen of verbiage serves the purpose of arousing the warm and fuzzies in the faithful, reassuring them that there really is “sophisticated theology” that the atheists cannot address. Thus, one can declare that God is so unknowable that one cannot say anything at all about God, at the same time as writing one’s eleventh book about that God!

    [Aside: I have recovered — just! — from the shock of labnut agreeing with me on the last thread. Just to continue the shocking agreement, I actually agree with Aravis’s last comment (yes, really, I do!). I agree with his arguments against Type Physicalism, and his points about multiple realisation, and about indefinite disjunctions. But, to repeat once again, those claims are not part of my version of “reductionism”. The only version I hold to (the only version common among physicists) is what Aravis calls the “uncontroversial”, “boring”, “uninteresting” version. And while that version of reductionism might be philosophically uninteresting, physicists make an issue of it because it is a very powerful tool for doing science.]

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  3. I find Armstrong untrustworthy on this topic, but would not expect Hart to have any trouble dealing with this analysis.

    Daniel says this: “Mystical theology gives us no justification for its radical (and seemingly incoherent) transcendence, without trust in scripture, without evidence for God, and without religious experience.”

    ‘Seemingly incoherent’? The eye of the beholder is not always trustworthy. I see no incoherence. I see a logical perfect system of explanation. Which only goes to show how tricky is the topic. We might note that Lao Tsu tells us that true words will seem paradoxical, and so they do.

    I do not recognise this picture. Most mystics state that experience shows that it would wrong to say that God exists. Indeed, it be wrong to say that anything exists. And if Nagarjuna’s metaphysical proof of Buddhism is not relevant here I’d be surprised.

    I see the points being made here and they seem reasonable, but they are all easily answered. Better objections would mean delving deeper.

    The article seems to be all about objective theism, which is precisely what is rejected by mysticism. Still, it will be a good argument against the views of anyone who cannot deal with these objections, and as such may help focus attention on the more subtle underlying issues.

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  4. Peter, besides the fact that I’m not even sure what it means to “prove” Buddhism (which is not an empirical set of statements, nor is it a mathematical system, nor, for that matter, a unified body of doctrines), I’m curious on what basis you state that “most mystics” would say that it is wrong to say that God exists. And if they did, wouldn’t that put them out of business, so to speak?

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  5. If atheists continue to insist that God be subject to reason, they are indeed discussing a different kind of God–one that is subordinate to reason. Mystics refer to a God who is transcendent to reason and their experiential approach requires reason be put aside in favor of revelation. This approach, of course, may seem undesirable to a person who faith in reason as the only valid epistemology. However, we are unable to prove with reason that we have private, subjective experience (the hard problem of consciousness). So reason has limits and a reasonable person will reach that conclusion.

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  6. 1) It is a cheap shot to say Armstrong should be writing poetry. One does not have to BE a poet to assert that poetry may be the best method to approach a difficult subject. Moreover, Armstrong’s intended audience may be one that would never read poetry.

    2) It is unfair to assert that Armstrong claims God is good. Armstrong claims God is transcendant, and merely uses the popular notion “God is good” to discuss transcendance.

    3) This essay seems blind to Armstrong’s point. It repeatedly makes complaints about the belief in God such as it is “vague”‘ “incoherent”, “no reason to believe”, etc. … all of which ASSUMES in the first place that God should be amenable to our limited reason, instead of taken as a leap of faith.

    4) Some believers would agree with the statement “God is a bottle of beer” ridiculed here. God is also a pencil, a flower, etc.

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  7. Fred, fair enough. But if God is not subject to reason, then shouldn’t people not talk about it at all, and certainly not write books *about* God, like Armstrong does, arguing in favor of the idea, trying to explain it?

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  8. Only one who loves God can truly share God with others. Although such mystics/saints use reason to speak about God with those of us who have no love, their reasoning helps us realize the futility of reason and what it means to truly love. In other words, we have to start somewhere and conditioned as we are to relate to reality through the mind and senses, we must gradually learn, practice, and experience reality not as an object to be exploited and controlled via reason, but as a super-subjective, lovable reality in whom we can repose our dedication.

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  9. I don’t have a problem with a sufficiently large god. However, if I can find no reason to reject such a god, I also can find no reason to accept such a god. Whether or not there is such a god seem irrelevant to me.

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  10. Thanks to Daniel Linford for this post: it opens a path directly to what I believe to be the heart of perhaps the most important theological issue, which is the meaning of the word “God.”

    I am an Armstrong fan and a physicist. When I use the word “God” (which I seldom do simply because of all the baggage it carries) I intend to refer to WHATEVER is the source of all that exists. I admit up-front that language is inadequate here: the word “whatever” is not good, but there is no good word. The Tao Te Ching’s opening has it right: that reality which can be named is not the ultimate reality.

    I prefer the phrase “Source of Being” or SOB (which my students like). I am also happy with “Nature” if anyone prefers that.

    All that “exists” (and I accept on faith that there is existence) emanates from this Source. This includes time, space, energy, and any “rules” (including logic) which we perceive to govern existence.

    Is the SOB “good?” Does the SOB “care about” (or even sense) humans? Does this Source possess anything we could call “consciousness?” Well, my response to all this is: “why would it not?” That is, why would we think that the source of everything that exists would lack ANY property that is “within” existence? Can I “prove” that it does? Of course not, but see above: logic is something that is contained within existence – a creation, if you like, of the Source. The Source is not constrained by logic.

    To repeat: I freely acknowledge that language is inadequate, as is human conception.

    All doctrine is suspect and almost certainly inaccurate. “Faith” is a word better rendered as “Trust.”

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  11. Fred, well, that’s one way to put it. Another is that I have no idea what you are referring to. Even (human) love itself I can understand, explain, talk about. But not the sort of thing you wish to refer to.

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  12. The medieval theories of analogy would probably be relevant to this issue. Philosophers like Aquinas thought that “goodness” didn’t apply to God the same way it applied to a person or an apple pie, but there was some “analogical” sense in which “God is good” was supposed to be true.

    This isn’t a topic I know much about, so I can’t say whether there’s any merit to it – I’m just pointing out an old theistic response to this issue.

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  13. I’ve spoken about one big issue with transcendence before, in various posts on both my primary blogs.

    Riffing on the old Problem of Evil, I call it the Problem of Psychological Evil. Any deity sufficiently powerful to make him/her/itself comprehensible to sentient creatures, but refusing to do so, creates Psychological Evil.

    That said, of course, this isn’t just related to transcendence of the extreme Armstrong sort. I crafted it in response to the traditional conservative theologians like Plantinga who refer to Paul’s quote of Job about god’s inscrutability. Daniel kind of picks up on that in his footnote 12 area, but is pretty much only referring to the Armstrong-type mystic, not the traditional conservative Christian like Plantinga. But, in various ways, it applies to both.

    Romans 11:33-34

    Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?

    Otherwise, any type of theology, or general belief, which things that “If I capitalize enough terms, it must have extra Depth, even a Ground of Being,” always gets an eyebrow raise from me. Coel gets at this too. Harry Ellis goes one better and capitalized the whole word.

    PeterJ, to be honest, simply takes this to the next level. Massimo, The answer is: “God is beyond proofs, he/she/it is that transcendent.” Just like Fred claimed.

    That said, Fred and all are … wrong!

    Let’s trot out a good friend of Massimo’s, as well as of be and Aravis. Guy named Wittgenstein.

    Basically, the extreme transcenders are saying, “Here’s our language game. It’s different. You don’t get it because you haven’t ‘opened yourself’ to it yet.” Fred just confirmed that in his second comment.

    Sorry, folks. But, if you need capital letters, and the claims of privileged knowledge, then you’ve failed the burden of proof.

    This, too, is nothing new. Part and parcel of Gnosticism. Even in the Christian Bible, it’s there.

    Hebrews 5:13-14

    For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

    And 1 Corinthians 3:2

    I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

    Nothing new under the sun, including claims of special enlightenment by “transcendent” means.

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  14. I see your objection but feel it is based on a misunderstanding. I should have qualified Buddhism with ‘Middle Way’, however, to distinguish it from variations. This includes the larger part of Buddhism, Zen etc.

    The metaphysics of Middle Way Buddhism is mathematically and logically sound, systematic and irrefutable. It is a neutral metaphysical position and can be described accurately with no appeals to transcendent realities. It is atheistic but perfectly consistent with, say, Christian mysticism, since the latter also does not claim that God exists.

    Indeed, according to Keith Ward in ‘God: A Guide for the Perplexed’, which I would highly recommend, classical Christianity, the religion of the first couple of centuries, the Desert Fathers, the Philokalia etc., did not claim that God exists. Not simply because He cannot be defined, but because He would transcend the existence/non-existence distinction. Clearly this is not suitable stuff for Sunday morning public sermons in Surbitan. Even the word ‘He’ is wrong here, as would be ‘Her’ or ‘It’.

    Going back to our earlier discussions elsewhere, Nagarjuna logically proves the need for a phenomenon beyond the categories of thought, and so there is an extant logical proof that we cannot conceive of the Absolute. No Buddhist would call this phenomenon God but it’s useful word and conveys something important. For instance, Schrodinger, who seems to have held the atheistic ‘advaitan’ view, regularly speaks of God. But it would be a code word, a placeholder, not an existent phenomenon. We speak of what is real, not of what exists. Nagaruna proves that nothing really exists,.

    I see the objections to theism and make many of them myself, but mysticism is not theism. On average it teaches that we should not reify anything at all, and this approach is justified by logic and experience. We all know that existence does not make sense once we take it at face value, It is the core problem of philosophy and always has been.

    Hence de Cusa’s remark, ‘He lies beyond the coincidence of contradictories’. One of these contradictories would be existence/non-existence. There is no objectification of God. It is the Abrahamic religions that reify the Absolute, and only then if we don’t read the small print or dig too deeply. A doctrine that denies the reality of all distinctions could never be theism.

    Apropos of nothing, I’m a fan of Karen Armstrong usually but I feel her book on God is dreadful, and I may never buy another book from her. I hope nobody forms any views about mysticism and God from reading it. It reads as a betrayal of mysticism and religion and is profoundly inaccurate. To deny that we can know the truth about God is to say that Jesus, Buddha and Lao Tsu were liars and fools, along with a few million people who have testified similarly. According to mysticism we can know it all and do not have to guess. This is made clear even in as early as the Corpus Hermeticum, which suggest that ancient Egyptian religion may also escape the criticism levelled at it here. Okay, this view of God cannot be proved intersubjectively, but this is not the fault of mysticism. The most orthodox ‘mystical’ view is not discussed in this article.

    There is a widespread idea that mysticism promotes theism and this article seem to assume it, but this is categorically not the case. The word is used but is usually meant to be equivalent with Tao, Nibbana etc.. . And, after all, for many centuries in Europe and the Middle East one tended to be hung, drawn and quartered if one did not use this word, or at best excommunicated.

    This is much too long, my apologies. I struggle to be brief. Does this answer the objection? .

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  15. SciSal@10:01

    Absolutely. The word, if it has ANY meaning, must refer to the absolute. It is Tillich’s “ground of being.” And if this Source turns out to be an infinite stack of turtles, or a multiverse of infinitely on-going big-bangs, the word must nevertheless refer to whatever gave rise to (there’s that language inadequacy again) the existing reality. If the word means anything less, then we should be worshiping whatever reality “allows” this god to be and to exercise authority.

    And, to the question of “What is the Source of the Source?” again see the point about logic being a creation of the Source: the SOB is not subject to logic.

    Now FAITH is something else. It is trust that this Source has certain properties – as best we can perceive them, acknowledging that our perception is highly subjective and inevitably distorted.

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  16. Speaking of “wrong kind of God”, it strikes me that liberal Protestants and conservative Protestants really do believe in two different Gods, each one sharing the politics of their respective believers. Religion and politics cannot be completely separate for believers.

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  17. For me, this and the many parallel discussions are about the wrong issue: should be us, not God. When asked about my religious beliefs, I answer “indifferent”. Some people want God, others don’t – not unlike a taste, say, for truffles. I don’t.

    JG

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  18. Demea: All the sentiments of the human mind, gratitude, resentment, love, friendship, approbation, blame, pity, emulation, envy, have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. It seems, therefore, unreasonable to transfer such sentiments to a supreme existence, or to suppose him actuated by them; and the phenomena besides of the universe will not support us in such a theory. All our ideas, derived from the senses, are confessedly false and illusive; and cannot therefore be supposed to have place in a supreme intelligence…

    Cleanthes: It seems strange to me, said CLEANTHES, that you, DEMEA, who are so sincere in the cause of religion, should still maintain the mysterious, incomprehensible nature of the Deity, and should insist so strenuously that he has no manner of likeness or resemblance to human creatures. The Deity, I can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes of which we can have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just, and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance? Or how do you mystics, who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from Sceptics or Atheists, who assert, that the first cause of all is unknown and unintelligible?

    Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
    by
    David Hume
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4583/4583-h/4583-h.htm

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  19. “Why is it that some people do not believe in God?”

    I am surprised that nobody mentions the opposite question:
    “Why is it that some people believe in God?”

    Which was the question Ludwig Feuerbach attempted to answer in his famous book, “Das Wesen des Christentums” (1841) which became “The Essence of Christianity,” when translated by George Eliot (1854), following her first translation from German with David Strauss’s 1835 “Life of Jesus” (1846).
    Feuerbach, who examined religious belief in an anthropological framework,saw in religion the expression of men’s feelings and emotions towards the natural world, percolating through imagination into fantastic images of gods.
    He missed the factor that the French founder of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, was the first to emphasize in “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” (1912) — religion and religious belief as a force of cohesion of the social group.

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  20. Speaking as an atheist myself, two points:

    First, when I call myself an atheist, I am really expressing an attitude more than a belief. I just don’t find the idea of God very interesting — it all just looks like mythology to me. I’m not any more interested in big mythology than small mythology.

    Second, I would actually find it easier to believe in a small god than a large God. Omniscience and omnipotence are impossible to make sense of, but a god on the order of Zeus doesn’t create the same kind of paradoxes. I’m an atheist on that level for empirical reasons; I’m an atheist on the big level for philosophical reasons.

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  21. “If we cannot rule out the possibility of God lying to us, then we have no reason to trust those doctrines which humans learned about only through divine revelation. These include the Trinity, the Eucharist, the nature of the afterlife, and so on”.

    Divine revelation? I would like to know Daniel Linford’s opinion about divine revelation. Is it like winning the lottery? How many years spent Buddha in getting enlightened? How many years spent Socrates, Epicurus and Diogenes in getting enlightened? How many years spent J. Krishnamurti in getting wisdom?

    This approach is quite surprising, it seems to me that hidden in the syntagma “divine revelation” there is a subtle denialism about the personal, hard inquiry that leads to obtain the spiritual perception. God may lie us, but God can’t prevent the personal work that leads to wisdom.

    The Trinity is a Gnostic doctrine that had little meaning in Jesus’ life, though it was used with theological purposes centuries after Jesus was murdered. The Eucharist was a holy Agape along with the Platonic and Socratic Agapes and along with the shamanic Agapes. Beyond the Agape’s transcendental aspects, those meetings had a horizontal, communitarian aim in order to form a sense of brotherhood. I don’t see any irrational, freak purpose in those meetings around a table.

    With regard to the nature of the afterlife, is it a religious topic? What about the eastern and western individuals and schools that believe in the afterlife that had nothing to do religion? Was Pythagoras a misguided thinker by believing in the afterlife and rebirth?

    The ones that negate and ignore God believe in the no existence of an outer God, but in doing so they also negate the way that leads to the spiritual perception. They also think that the way to enlightenment (divine revelation?) is an easy and confortable task, which is wrong. So, the outer God (if it would exist) might not be interested in reveals itself unless the seeker takes over the spiritual inquiry.

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  22. This discussion has been succinctly wrapped up in a “signature” tagline that I encountered recently:

    “If atheism is a religion, then OFF is a TV channel.”

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  23. Harry Ellis (“why would we think that the source of everything that exists would lack ANY property that is “within” existence?”) gives something very close to the classic ontological “proof” of God’s existence. This, IMHO works much like the proof that all natural numbers are interesting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interesting_number_paradox) which is a sort of cautionary tale of what happens when you methods that do indeed work on sufficiently rigorously defined concepts to concepts that are not rigorously defined.

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  24. SocraticGadfly, I think you are missing the point. Mystics posit that God is beyond reason based on their experience of God. Yet you demand to be shown proof in the form of logical argument or sense perception. But the mystics respond by positing that God cannot be known by those methods.

    This is a discussion on epistemology and it is the Eastern traditions in particular that have a different methodology than that posited by materialism/naturalism. Their method begins with reason but then acknowledges that it has a limit and goes on to include trans-rational practices that produce a trans-rational experience. Their reasoning mostly consists of providing motivation to engage in the practice. You might argue that their reasoning is not compelling enough to engage in the practice, fine. But the fact that you cannot prove your own private, subjective experience in an objective way gives credit to the idea that objective means of knowing are not comprehensive.

    After all, you have a private, subjective experience of your own reasoning process, and you try to share it with others, but the fact that you experience anything precludes your reasoning process. You may try to reason about your existence or your experience, but you must exist and experience to do so. Therefore, there is an alternate epistemology that transcends reason. Most Eastern traditions do not deal with belief, but instead with being and existence. They encourage us to explore the extent to which we exist by withdrawing from the world of reason and sense perception, and of course from there, recommend a means by which we can experience the source of our existence.

    I’m simplifying but just to make the point that we are (or should be) talking about epistemology.

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  25. Last comment on this thread: My point (well, one of them) is that the mere fact of existence implies, to me, a Source. If you want to be a pantheist, that’s fine. Call it “Nature” or “the Universe” (or “Multivierse”) or just “Existence” instead of God if that makes you happy. But arguing the “existence” of an ultimate reality is futile. There IS (I claim, along with Descartes) a reality, which implies a Reality. After that, we are just arguing about the character (or nature, or inherent properties) of that Reality. That’s theology, so far as I am concerned, and it’s important, but it’s also forever beyond certainty and is totally a matter of faith/trust.

    SO: I don’t believe in atheists, as there is no evidence that there is any person – even and especially a solipsist – who doesn’t believe that there is a reality.

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  26. Let me see if I understand the steps of this argument: (1) If I actually understood the correct idea of god, I’d cease being an atheist. (2) I can’t actually understand the idea of god, because god transcends comprehension and you can’t use words that will actually explain that idea of god to me.

    Okay. Got it. Let me think about that for . . . Oh, wait: I’m already done thinking about it.

    Funny thing: I’m still an atheist. The only difference is that my face hurts a little from the application of my palm.

    A bit more seriously: I have no problem with anyone who claims belief in a god because of a personal revelation. After all, I love my wife because of a personal revelation–in fact, many personal revelations.

    But when someone asks me to believe in the truth of his or her personal revelation, then I really do ask for something better than the argument that appears to be made by Armstrong and her ilk. These folks really do appear to be asking me to believe in something that they cannot actually explain. They do not offer reasoned argument; they offer merely conclusory statements.

    I think that it’s entirely fair to call this approach “incoherent.” I agree fully with Coel’s comment on this point.

    P.S.: I edited scholarly books for university presses for ten years. I have been and am now a teacher of writing. I know the rules of capitalization. So, yes: “god.”

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  27. I think that what mystics refer to as “God” is a brain state that is still little understood, but is almost certainly not what believers think it is. I trust that neuroscientists will eventually be able to explain the mechanism of how it is produced and ascertain its value or lack thereof. At that point, all of the theologians will either be in an even deeper and more pitiful state of denial than they are presently or they will be extremely embarrassed as they should be. In short, I think the God business is unsustainable and is on its last legs. I wouldn’t invest a penny in it to be honest.

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  28. Fred Eaker wrote:

    “Mystics posit that God is beyond reason based on their experience of God. Yet you demand to be shown proof in the form of logical argument or sense perception. But the mystics respond by positing that God cannot be known by those methods.”

    —————————————

    How, then, does one distinguish genuine mystics from fraudulent mystics?

    —————————————-

    Harry Ellis wrote:

    “The mere fact of existence implies, to me, a Source…SO: I don’t believe in atheists, as there is no evidence that there is any person – even and especially a solipsist – who doesn’t believe that there is a reality.”

    —————————————–

    The key phrase here is “to me.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t imply this *to us*. So, you can go on believing that there aren’t any atheists, and the atheists will go right on being…atheists, regardless.

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  29. Harry, once more, equating god with reality simply seems to me a rather trivial rhetorical trick. Sure, then we are all non-atheists, and the discussions is utterly uninteresting.

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  30. Joel, here — as an atheist — I have to strike a chord on the other side: neuroscience has nothing whatsoever to do with this, nor it will ever have anything to do with it. *Any* experience we have will also have a brain correlate, regardless of whether that experience has a referent in the real world on not. So the answer is not going to be found out by neuroscientists.

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  31. Daniel,
    great article, very well written.

    Coel,
    you have everything right in your comment. It’s as if one were to pronounce, ‘the hand in my pocket is holding a miraculous object that I can’t even describe; but if I were to take it out to show it to you, it would disappear.’ So while this person seems to be asking for is faith that the object exists, what he/she is really asking is faith in his/her testimony.

    PeterJ,
    I’m a big fan of Nagarjuna’s but I read him differently, as an extreme nominalist who is basically claiming that metaphysics, if taken realistically, lead to inevitable self-contradition. (It should be noted that Nagarjuna, though always highly respected, was not without critics among later Tibetan philosophers.)

    The problem with any mysticism is that, while the personal experience may have validity to the one experiencing it, this doesn’t warrant any further claim concerning it. (In the above hypothesis, the person holding the miraculous object may have a mystical experience while doing so, but the object still apparently disappears when shared.)

    Fred Eaker,
    There are unfortunately a couple problems with what you say. First, while no one can deny this as your experience, it isn’t persuasive – and you want it to be – what you want to say (we’ve seen it often enough), is ‘if you would only open yourself up to god, you would know him and love him as I do!’ Maybe, but I can see no reason to do so, and I have no feeling for it either.

    Secondly, while I know there’s no way I can convince you of it, the fact is that we know enough from the neurosciences to be able to say that your feeling here is the manifestation of neurochemical transmitters in the brain. Basically, god-thoughts trigger these transmitters in such a way as to shaqrply increase your feeling of well-being. This doesn’t say your interpretation is wrong, it might well-be god doing this for you; but there is neither reason nor evidence to confirm that this is so.

    Tom Dobrzeniecki,
    it does not matter if god is amenable to our reason; the question is whether talk about god is amenable to our reason; and since god-talk occurs in language, we have a right to demand that it is.

    Harry Ellis,
    Spinzoan pantheism is not without interest intellectually; however it really can’t provide either a mystical experience (which in such pantheism always reduces to an aesthetic experience), nor any defense of the mystical as this SOB of which you write. (You’re last comment asks that 1, I allow that there must be a source of being, and 2, I allow SOB=Reality; I reject both. Whatever reality is, it just is.)

    Mario Roy,
    no one is saying that you should not undertake the personal quest you write of; the question is, does any of the testimony of those who have, warrant our accepting their testimony as true? Simple answer: no.

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  32. Aravis Tarkheena asks “How, then, does one distinguish genuine mystics from fraudulent mystics?” That is a good question. The observable qualities of a mystic are described in the Bhagavad-gita: charity, self-restraint, austerity, non-violence, honesty, compassion, and deep humility to name a few. These are very, very rare people, but they are out there, and they fully embody what it means to be a human being.

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  33. Fred, besides the issue with determining whether one is really charitable, austere, etc. in practice. Surely these are not sufficient conditions for having “real” mystical experiences, right? One could be all that and still have hallucinations or delusions which one would regard as real mystical experiences.

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  34. Fred Eaker wrote:

    “The observable qualities of a mystic are described in the Bhagavad-gita: charity, self-restraint, austerity, non-violence, honesty, compassion, and deep humility to name a few. These are very, very rare people, but they are out there, and they fully embody what it means to be a human being.”
    ________________________________________________________________________________

    And how would you know whether a person has these qualities? Just take their word on it?

    Do you not understand how many of these gurus, swamis, and the like have turned out to be utter frauds and criminals, something that is sometimes only discovered decades later? These are some of the most sophisticated confidence tricksters one can find out there.

    My own position rejects both atheism and mysticism, as they are commonly expressed. I embrace religion — as embodying the practices, customs, aesthetics, and mores of my people — but reject mysticism and super-naturalism, the claims to which, in my view are always fraudulent, whether deliberately or as a result of self-delusion.

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  35. An underlying assumption here seems to be that mystical theologians are arguing in good faith and are even trying to be intellectually consistent. I have serious doubts about that. The likes of Karen Armstrong do believe that they know things about their god and merely use obscurantism as a shield against requests for evidence.

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  36. To follow up on my initial thought, re Wittgenstein:

    A number of people representing “the traditional mystic stance” essentially want to use a private mental language, yet force others to accept it as valid for public dialogue. That’s extending what Aravis said, too.

    And, Fred just proved that, too.

    Nope, nope, nope.

    Speaking of extending a comment by Aravis …

    Fred, so, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was a true mystic? Until he got his followers to poison people in Oregon? And Ram Dass was a true mystic? Until he started sexually abusing some of his followers?

    Plenty, plenty, plenty of people thought that people like this were “true mystics” until …

    And, please, don’t trot out the “no true mystic” version of the old “no true Scotsman” argument.

    And it’s not just from your Hinduism. I cite Sabbatai Tzvi. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatai_Zevi

    I can cite Christian, Sufi Muslim, Buddhist and other mystics, too.

    Beyond that, there’s humane, charitable people who aren’t mystics, or theists or pantheists of any sort. Bertrand Russell pops to mind.

    Speaking of Russell, I’m also, easily, reminded of Russell’s Teapot:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot

    Again, the burden lies on you mystics to describe these claims in effable ways. If not, getting back to my first comment, you’ve just indicated that this mystical power isn’t omnipotent, or close to it.

    Back to the language games, and correct phrasing of questions, and “directionality” of some questions.

    Roo kind of gets at that, with his questioning that there’s one way to talk about this, re Feuerbach, etc.

    David Ottinger Good add-on. I didn’t have room for Hume in my initial post.

    Bill Skaggs how far below omnipotent does something have to fall before we stop calling it “god”? See Arthur C. Clarke and advanced technologies being indistinguishable from magic. Or, per Philip Thrift and a philosophical idea I’ve mentioned before, how far below omnipotence does your idea of god fall (if you were some sort of theist) before somebody else says it’s not a god, or even, “category mistake”?

    Star Trek tackled this one well, in the “Who Mourns for Adonis” episode, where the Enterprise meets Apollo. http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Apollo

    Back to Russell.

    This isn’t an argument “for atheism” per se.

    Rather, it’s an “argument” in the philosophical sense requiring the mystics to:
    1. Present empirical evidence
    2. In a logical form of argument
    3. Describing said evidence, and presenting said argument, in a common, public language.

    That said, per my first-comment note that the Problem of Psychological Evil pertains to traditional, non-mystical believers in a deity both omnipotent and omniscient, said requirement pertains there, too.

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  37. If one has a mystical experience it will change how one relates to the world thereby causing them to display the observable qualities mentioned. If one just has a hallucination, they will not have such a fundamental shift in their approach to the world. What is that shift? One ceases to identify oneself as a biological or psychological entity. Such identification leads one to exploit the world to maintain an existence that cannot be maintained. Using reason to maintain such an existence makes us no more than dangerous animals.

    When one experiences themselves as consciousness (atma), one does not need to take from the world or others to sustain one’s existence because the mystical experience includes seeing oneself as consciousness, with no beginning or end. When one has this kind of experience, there is no need to exploit the world and in fact, once realizes their own potential to give and love unlimitedly because there is nothing to loose by giving if you never cease to exist. And who can reciprocate fully with unlimited giving? God.

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  38. Harry Ellis wrote:

    “The mere fact of existence implies, to me, a Source…SO: I don’t believe in atheists, as there is no evidence that there is any person – even and especially a solipsist – who doesn’t believe that there is a reality.”

    I don’t mind calling myself an atheist but that is really a sort of working assumption (but then so is everything else).

    So I often say I’m a mystical agnostic, and the whole of my religion/mysticism is “It’s turtles all the way down” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down).

    It comes down to whatever “ultimate cause” you can dream up, my mind is certain to respond with “but why did that happen or why was that there (whether God or the big blob or whatever before the big bang). I believe the universe exists, but I have to believe in some sense it is absurd, or anyway that given the way minds try to explain things, it must forever remain absurd.

    One of the sloppy things we do in order to maintain whatever it is we believe in is to apply this reasoning to someone else’s picture of reality but not our own. So “Ha! Where did God come from?” or “How do you explain the wonder and complexity of nature without a creator?”.

    I am very much a social epistemologist, and happy that Massimo Pigliucci devoted the last chapter of Nonsense on Stilts to a recognition of this movement, or rather to one of the 2 movements called “Social Epistemology”. A very primitive gesture towards a “foundationless” or “bottomless” philosophy of science centered around the social is: http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com/2014/12/machines-invisible-elephants-and.html

    FWIW, long before I heard of social epistemology, I was impressed by Boorstin’s The Discoverers for its treatment of science as an outgrowth of institutions.

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  39. ejwinner, I agree that much of what we experience emotionally is based on neurochemistry. However, neuroscience has not conclusively that proven consciousness can be reduced to matter. Again, this is the hard problem of consciousness that materialists struggle with.

    I would argue that the ephemeral identifications of “I am American” or “I am Christian” are the root of flawed reasoning in both materialism and religious fundamentalism. While we might experience neurochemical induced emotions when our provincial sense of self appears that it might have the potential to endure (“My county won the war”), we all know that everything related to the observable world is here today and gone tomorrow, and we experience another set of neurochemical emotions when that sense of self appears to be threatened.

    The subjective experience of “I am” or “I exist” is what I am referring to when I use the word consciousness. It is this sense of self that underlines all the ephemeral identities and that everyone shares despite apparent differences. Once again, although I cannot objectively prove to you that I have a subjective experience of existence that pervades the entire course of my life, that fact is that you do too!

    Sorry to keep repeating myself here, but this experience of existence falls under the same criterion that the mystics are asking us to experience God. So if you say “Prove that God exists,” I would respond by saying, “Prove that you have a subjective experience of existence.” How would you explain it? What words would you use? You might say, “Sit still, turn off the TV, close the door, watch the mind come and go and reason, and ask yourself, who is witnessing the mind’s reasoning process?” You would prescribe a practice of allowing someone to share a similar experience with you, or at the very least, affording them an opportunity to see the value in what you are trying to describe. The same applies to the mystic’s proposition that God cannot be understood through reason, he must be experienced through the practice of self-surrender.

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  40. Fred, how do you know that a hallucination doesn’t change a person’s outlook on life, if that person believes that the hallucination was actually the manifestation of a real phenomenon?

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  41. Massimo,

    I guess that you are positing a reductionist, hyper-skeptic argument. Conversely, how do we know that those that negate the existence of the outer God and the inner spiritual experience are not caught in a hallucination? Or being more charitable, do they show a biased, subjective view, a factual inability toward the spiritual perception? In other words, why is so common to put the burden of proof on the spiritual people? There have been many individuals and schools that perceived the spiritual experience as a natural event, and, for sure, I won’t say that they are insane and victims of a weird hallucination. So, our outlook on life may own a spiritual side as Fred points out. Wandering about the mental condition of a spiritual person doesn’t seem a good, logic reason to deny the spiritual event.

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  42. Hi Daniel,

    I am not really familiar with the modern authors you mention, but I am a little familiar with Aquinas. I am a little puzzled that you say:

    Some theologians, such as Denys Turner [7] and Thomas Aquinas [8], have suggested that we do not even know what it means to say that God exists.

    and then you quote an article from the Summa where Aquinas expresses the strong opinion that he does know what it means to say that God exists (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1003.htm#article). We can hardly attach Aquinas to any prevarication about the existence of God because the previous article to this one Aquinas states very clearly that God exists (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm) .

    So I cannot be entirely sure that you are fairly representing the modern authors. You say:

    Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naive: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good.” Here we deny that God has some (human) property [6].

    And you cite from Karen Armstrong (I went and looked for the full quote):

    But many find this puzzling. Surely everybody knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality, who created the world and everything in it. They look perplexed if you point out that it is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not a being at all, and that we really don’t understand what we mean when we say that he is “good,” “wise,” or “intelligent.” People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who “he” is and what he thinks, loves, and expects. (http://www.amazon.com/The-Case-God-Karen-Armstrong/dp/product-description/0307389804)

    To represent this as saying “God is not good” seems to be somewhat inaccurate.

    Again you say:

    Many mystics insist that we should alternate between these two stages, affirming and denying, until we are left in a silence pointing to God.

    But with no cite. Do you have an example of anybody saying that we should alternate between saying God is good and God is not good until we are left in silence pointing to God?

    Oddly, although I had never previously had the inclination to read Armstrong’s books, you have left me intrigued to find what she really said. It seems to me that she is really just an atheist who wants to use the word “God” to refer to certain feelings she has about life. That is not uncommon.

    Finally there is this?

    If only atheists considered the proper sort of deity, these authors insist, they would have long abandoned their atheism.

    Can you give a cite of any of the authors actually saying this?

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