Do Atheists Have God All Wrong?

This article first appeared on TruthDig.

"We are talking far too much about God these days," writes Karen Armstrong, author of "The Battle for God," "Visions of God," "The Changing Face of God" and "A History of God," at the outset of her new book, "The Case for God." Funny, I was just thinking the same thing.

Still, I think I understand: If the rest of us are suffering from a touch of God Fatigue, surely Armstrong, whose readable, literate books on particular religions and religion in general have earned her a respectable reputation, might well be sick to death of the topic.

But there is no avoiding the topic of God: It’s all the rage these days. God is under attack, and God’s attackers under counterattack, everywhere you look. Anyway, Armstrong’s real complaint is not that we are talking too much about God, but that there is too much talk of the wrong sort. We have misunderstood the very concept of God, and as a result "what we say [about God] is often facile." She isn’t referring only to the so-called new atheists here -- well, primarily she is referring to the new atheists, because they are the ones that really get her goat, but she is careful to assure us that the central modern misunderstanding of religion, which is to see it primarily as a matter of belief, is one shared by most religious adherents, and isn’t just a creation of their critics.

The complaint that the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc.) are theologically incompetent, and that a subtler appreciation for the finer points of theology would expose the shallowness of their attacks, is by now a common one. But few defenders of religion attempt actually to spell out the theological details; and the results of those attempts that have been made are, in my experience, deeply unsatisfying.

Can Armstrong’s ambitious survey of the history of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious thought do better? She is entirely correct that atheistic critiques aimed at naive strict literalist readings of holy texts can take us only so far. Mocking the angry, cruel, unjust deity of the Old Testament, or reminding literalists that the world is considerably more than 4,000 years old, has little force against the moderate, nonfundamentalist faithful. More powerful skeptical critiques, though, do not presuppose Scriptural literalism. They rely on the Darwinian view of how complex life evolved on this planet, or the existence of serious evil and injustice -- things that are well-established and pretty much impossible reasonably to deny and, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with any view of God-as-designer/caretaker, or with any other traditional form of theistic belief.

Pointing out that sacred texts are not meant to be read literally, then, is not enough. Armstrong’s more radical strategy is to de-emphasize the role of belief in religious life altogether: Practice, she writes, is more important than belief, and we misunderstand references to "belief" in the Bible, the Quran and elsewhere if we interpret them in accordance with our modern understanding of belief. (The correct sense, she writes, has more to do with " ‘trust,’ ‘loyalty,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘commitment.’ ") Critics who focus on the absurdity or implausibility of so many religious beliefs, then, or on the fact that religion encourages people to accept these beliefs uncritically and to hold them in the face of any countervailing evidence, are missing the point: It isn’t believing certain things but rather living a certain sort of life that makes a person religious.

One might well worry, though, that it is not as easy as Armstrong assumes to separate belief from action or practice. Indeed all intentional voluntary action presupposes some set of beliefs. Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than "mere" belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient. What must be shown is that religion does not involve belief, and not merely that it involves other things in addition to belief. So long as religious worldviews differ in certain important ways from that held by the nonreligious, one can still complain that that worldview is poorly founded and, to a large degree, implausible. (Of course, it is open to the faithful to attempt to formulate a worldview that is both plausible and recognizably religious in a meaningful sense. Again, though, reassurances that such a picture can be articulated are far more often encountered than are actual and convincing attempts at doing so.)

Throughout the book Armstrong frequently indicates an attraction to apophaticism, which she sees as promising a response to this worry. Apophaticism, as she understands it, claims that God is ineffable and that talk about God literally has no content at all. Since God transcends all human attempts at understanding, humans cannot think or say anything meaningful about God:

The idea of God is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence and has been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries. The modern God -- conceived as a powerful creator, first cause, supernatural personality realistically understood and rationally demonstrable -- is a recent phenomenon. It was born in a more optimistic time than our own and reflects the firm expectation that scientific rationality could bring the apparently inexplicable aspects of life under the control of reason. […] We have seen too much evil in recent years to indulge in a facile theology that says -- as some have tried to say -- that God knows what he is doing, that he has a secret plan that we cannot fathom, or that suffering gives men and women the opportunity to practice heroic virtue. A modern theology must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness and be prepared, perhaps, to enter the cloud of unknowing.

This rejection of the theistic God, and acknowledgment that the problem of evil cannot be swept away through theodicy, might sound like music to atheists’ ears. And what could any skeptic find objectionable about revelation once we accept Maximus’ view that "[p]aradoxical as it might sound, the purpose of revelation was to tell us that we knew nothing about God"? Surely if this view were widely accepted the most serious problems with religion would simply dissipate. Would people who admitted that they "knew nothing about" God’s will support laws to prevent "unholy" same-sex marriages? Would people who saw God as "that mystery, which defies description" be moved to reject Darwinian views of evolution, contra all the available evidence?

But rather than characterizing such a position as a significant concession to the new atheists, Armstrong insists on continuing to regard them as her primary opponents. Moreover, she is unable to hold herself consistently to her own apophatic view. Indeed, passages like the following, in which she relates with apparent approval the reasoning of Athanasius, suggest that on her understanding the apophatic position, rather than discouraging metaphysical speculation, in fact licenses and encourages it:

It was only because we had no idea what God was that we could say that God had been in the man Jesus. It was also impossible to say that God’s substance was not in Christ, because we could not identify the ousia of God; it lay completely beyond our ken, so we did not know what we were denying.

In other words, it is precisely our lack of knowledge of God that enables us to say, well, pretty much whatever we want about God -- except, of course, that God was not in Christ (but only an atheist or heathen would want to say that anyway). This is mysticism and metaphysical hand-waving raised to a truly objectionable level. If you do not know what you are denying then you also do not know what you are asserting; our inability to conceptualize cannot, on the one hand, prevent skeptics from denying Christ’s divinity while at the same time allowing the faithful to assert it.

Armstrong’s apophaticist’s disavowal of God thus appears to be a conceptual Trojan horse -- a sop to the skeptic whose real intent is to permit religious speculation to go on as before, unchecked by rational criticism and debate. The strategy reduces to saying "God isn’t this, God isn’t that" without ever giving a positive account of what God is, while still regarding oneself as justified in talking about and orienting one’s life around God. This is like the debater who responds to every objection by insisting "Well that’s not what I meant" without ever managing to say what he does mean.

Ultimately it is doubtful that apophaticism can be made to work. If the concept of "God" is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about. (If I walk around constantly referring to "bizzers," and rebuff any request for clarification by saying "I will not place limits on bizzers by defining them, for bizzers transcend all human attempts to come to know them," I am simply talking nonsense.) In her more radical mode, Armstrong wants to preserve religious talk from questions of truth -- in our ordinary sense of "truth" -- by draining them of content. But when we lose content we do not only lose truth, we lose meaning as well. The apophatic retort to the skeptic, then, seems to reduce to: "You don’t know what you’re talking about -- indeed, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. So how dare you contradict me!"

Moreover, Armstrong’s attempts to find respectable examples of apophaticism sometimes cause her to resort to highly implausible interpretive strategies. Consider what she says about Socrates, for instance:

People did not go to Socrates to learn anything -- he always insisted that he had nothing to teach them -- but to have a change of mind. Participants in a Socratic dialogue discovered how little they knew, and that the meaning of even the simplest proposition eluded them.

It requires a profound lack of appreciation of Socratic irony to take Socrates’ insistence that he had nothing to teach at face value. Indeed, Armstrong’s account is not even internally consistent: By her own lights it is false that people learned nothing from Socrates, for what they learned was precisely "how little they knew." The deep point is, once again, that both practice and transformation involve and require belief: One cannot possibly achieve "a change of mind" without changing one’s view of the world -- that is, one’s beliefs. Once again we find Armstrong leaning heavily on a naive and unsustainable either-or dichotomy between belief, on the one hand, and practice on the other.

Then again, where would Armstrong be without her unsustainable dichotomies, her black-and-white either-ors? She steadfastly resists the "religion versus science" dichotomy, identifying it as a modernist artifact, but like many intellectual defenders of religion she adores the "religion or science" dichotomy, as formulated by Stephen Jay Gould:

The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory)? The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry. [Gould, "Rocks of Ages," quoted by Armstrong]

As a secular ethicist, and poet, I cannot help but find this rather offensive: My intellectual career seems not to exist, according to Gould’s simplistic way of carving up conceptual space. (His view that the magisteria "do not overlap" also implies, very implausibly, that empirical matters can have no bearing at all on moral questions.) Armstrong, though, finds it deeply amenable: Of course morality and meaning must fall under religion’s purview! After all, she is almost unable to imagine a conception of meaningful human life that does not ultimately rest on God:

Nor, like Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, do [the new atheists] face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the means of creating a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.

Apparently it is to be privilege for some, religion for the rest, and nihilism for those unfortunates who have neither. Is there really no other alternative? Richard Dawkins, for one, has written quite movingly, in "Unweaving the Rainbow" and elsewhere, on the way an appreciation of the nature of the universe, as revealed by science, can inspire and inform a sense of wonder and meaning. There is no apparent reason to assume that skepticism must inevitably lead to nihilism. Nor, for that matter, should we assume that a religion based on an ineffable, unreachable mystery of which we know nothing, and which does not even exist in any sense of "exist" that makes sense to us, will be an effective stay against nihilism. Armstrong takes the link between religion and meaningfulness to be too obvious to be worth spelling out. In fact the link is not obvious at all; it is merely conventional -- a matter of so-called common sense.

Her uncritical acceptance of the "non-overlapping magisteria" view is only one of the mistakes she makes about science. According to her, Einstein’s theories of relativity implied that science was "unable to provide us with definitive proof [and that] its findings are inherently limited and provisional"; Karl Popper argued that all scientific hypotheses "could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other ‘belief,’ because testing could only show that a hypothesis was not false"; and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle showed "that it was impossible for scientists to achieve an objective result because the act of observation itself affected their understanding of the object of their investigation" and somehow implied "the deep interconnectedness of all reality." All quite wrong, of course. What may be the most serious misunderstanding leads her to utter the tiresome canard that "there will always be an element of what religious people call ‘faith’ in science." Of course "acting on faith" here simply means "acting in the absence of absolute certainty," so that a scientist’s willingness to proceed on the assumption that a certain hypothesis is correct is, to Armstrong’s mind, essentially the same phenomenon as religious faith. (As is drinking a glass of milk or turning a key to start one’s car, for that matter.) But there is all the difference in the world, precisely because the scientist, if reasonable, will so proceed only if there is good practical reason to do so, and only unless and until the evidence proves the hypothesis false. The responsible scientist, that is, respects the fact that she is not absolutely certain, and is thus ready to be proved wrong. Indeed, any responsible scientist can tell you what evidence would cause her to abandon her hypothesis; whereas it is the rare religious believer indeed who is able to do this.

But there I go, talking about religious believers again, when Armstrong has shown that religion is not a matter of belief -- right? Well, as I said above, she has tried to show that, but not convincingly; and even if she could show it, it is not clear that that could somehow defend religion as actually practiced in our world. (In light of polls indicating that a large majority of Americans believe in a personal God, and that less than 40 percent of them believe in evolution, Armstrong’s claim that apophaticism represents the religious mainstream -- at least in this country -- is pretty hard to swallow.) Indeed there are many moments in "The Case for God" when Armstrong seems to drift away from apophaticism and into a deeply subjectivist view of religious truth, which holds that true religious beliefs are essentially private and can be obtained only through committed individual practice. Surprisingly, Armstrong does not seem to notice that this view is not only distinct from apophaticism, it is deeply opposed in spirit. It is not only that subjectivism, unlike apophaticism, attributes truth values to God-talk, but that apophaticism, for all its conceptual difficulties, at least tries to engender skepticism, doubt and intellectual humility by reminding us that we have no knowledge of God. Subjectivism, by contrast, tells its adherents that there are things they can know about God, and that these beliefs are inner matters, known through private experience, that do not need to be justified to their fellows, or to be entered into the tribunal of public reason in any manner whatsoever.

How would a subjectivist know that she was making a mistake of some sort if she were not required, nor even able, to check her understanding against that of her fellow human beings? Presumably she would not; rather, she would write off the concerns of potential critics and correctors who are, after all, outsiders to the tradition or, at any rate, to her subjective experience. (As Armstrong writes, religion’s critics are generally people "who find the ‘beliefs’ of religion arbitrary and incredible because they have not fully participated in its transformative rites.") It is not obvious why Armstrong thinks such a view can be reconciled with the apophatic denial of certainty about and knowledge of the divine. Nor can I tell which one she would prefer, were their incompatibility to be made clear to her. All I can say about such subjectivism is that it seems a recipe for supreme confidence in one’s convictions, if not for fanaticism; and it is odd to find Armstrong, who praises apophaticism for its opposition to certainty and who complains that scientists and atheists tend to be too confident in their convictions, praising such a view. None of us, obviously, can prove with absolute certainty that committed subjectivists do not know the things they claim to know about God. But what really worries me about such believers is that they would not care if we could.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.