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"Anyone interested in taking the debate about God to the next level should read and reflect on Hart’s spirited brief on behalf of Christian truth."—Damon Linker, New Republic
"God" Is Not a Proper Name
An absolutely convinced atheist, it often seems to me, is simply someone who has failed to notice something very obvious—or, rather, failed to notice a great many very obvious things. This is not any sort of accusation or reproach. Something can be incandescently obvious but still utterly unintelligible to us if we lack the conceptual grammar required to interpret it; and this, far from being a culpable deficiency, is usually only a matter of historical or personal circumstance. One age can see things that other ages cannot simply because it has the imaginative resources to understand what it is looking at; one person's education or cultural formation may have enabled him or her to recognize meaning where others will find only random disorder. If a man raised in a culture without any written language, for instance, or anything analogous, were to happen upon an abandoned city built by a vanished civilization that long ago copiously recorded its history, literature, philosophy, and music in indelible ink on imperishable paper, and stored the whole archive in a great and indestructible library, everything he could ever hope to know about that ancient people would be laid out before him in those books; but it would mean nothing to him. The situation would not be entirely hopeless: sooner or later he or one of his compatriots would probably realize that the letters of that unknown alphabet were more than bland decorative motifs pointlessly preserved in irregular sequences, and would begin to grasp the mysterious principle behind them. Even then, though, real understanding would lie only at the end of a long and excruciatingly laborious process.
This may be a somewhat defective metaphor, however; I am not even entirely sure how I wish it to be taken, or whether it constitutes more of an exaggeration or an understatement. Seen in one way, certainly, contemporary atheist discourse is not separated from the language of the great theistic traditions by anything as vast as the abyss separating that illiterate explorer from the meaning of those texts. If it were, things might be much simpler. Unfortunately, one of the more insidious aspects of today's public debates over belief and unbelief is that they are often sustained by the illusion that both sides are using the same words in the same way; since there are no immediately obvious linguistic barriers to overcome, each side understands the other just well enough to be deceived into thinking that both are working within the same conceptual frame. There are times when that illiterate explorer's blank stare of incomprehension, accompanied by a long tentative silence, would be dearly welcome. Seen in another way, however, the separation may actually be a great deal more radical than my metaphor suggests. After all, once the illiterate culture has solved the enigma of those texts and penetrated their fascinating veils of symbols, it might find a people much like its own on the other side, with many of the same beliefs and intuitions and expectations of the universe. I sometimes wonder, however, whether in the case of modern atheism and theistic tradition what is at issue is the difference between two entirely incommensurable worlds, or at least two entirely incommensurable ways of understanding the world. It may be that what the atheist lacks the conceptual means to interpret may be nothing as elementary as a foreign language or an alien medium of communication, but rather the very experience of existence itself.
In the end, though, I doubt that the problem is really as extreme as all that. I retain a belief, however naive, in a sort of universal grammar of human nature, which makes it possible to overcome any cultural or conceptual misunderstanding; and, without discounting the immense power of culture to shape and color our encounter with the one world that we all together inhabit, I also believe there are certain common forms of experience so fundamental to human rationality that, without them, we could not think or speak at all. They make all other experiences possible, from the most quotidian to the most extraordinary; they underlie and animate all the great ventures of the human intellect: art, science, philosophy, and so forth. Starting from that most primordial level, reciprocal understanding is always in principle possible, assuming there is enough good will on both sides. All I want to do in the pages that follow is to attempt to explain, as lucidly as I can, how traditional understandings of God illuminate and are illuminated by those experiences.
That may seem a somewhat minimalist project, I know, but the conviction behind it is not; in fact, it could scarcely be more "maximal." Just to make clear what my peculiar prejudices are, I acknowledge up front that I do not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position; in fact, I see it as a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd. More simply, I am convinced that the case for belief in God is inductively so much stronger than the case for unbelief that true philosophical atheism must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one's own hopes or conceptual limitations. Having said this, though, I have to qualify it, because it is a much more limited assertion than it at first appears to be. I do not mean that there is anything intellectually contemptible in being formally "godless"—that is, in rejecting all religious dogmas and in refusing to believe in the God those dogmas describe. One might very well conclude, for instance, that the world contains far too much misery for the pious idea of a good, loving, and just God to be taken very seriously, and that any alleged creator of a universe in which children suffer and die hardly deserves our devotion. It is an affective—not a strictly logical—position to hold, but it is an intelligible one, with a certain sublime moral purity to it; I myself find it deeply compelling; and it is entirely up to each person to judge whether he or she finds any particular religion's answer to the "problem of evil" either adequate or credible. I also do not mean that there is any deep logical inconsistency in an attitude of agnostic aloofness from all theologies and spiritual practices; one either finds them plausible or one does not. When I say that atheism is a kind of obliviousness to the obvious, I mean that if one understands what the actual philosophical definition of "God" is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate absurdity.
This, it seems to me, ought to be an essentially inoffensive assertion. The only fully consistent alternative to belief in God, properly understood, is some version of "materialism" or "physicalism" or (to use the term most widely preferred at present) "naturalism"; and naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural—is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking. The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature. It is a metaphysical (which is to say "extra-natural") conclusion regarding the whole of reality, which neither reason nor experience legitimately warrants. It cannot even define itself within the boundaries of its own terms, because the total sufficiency of "natural" explanations is not an identifiable natural phenomenon but only an arbitrary judgment. Naturalism, therefore, can never be anything more than a guiding prejudice, an established principle only in the sense that it must be indefensibly presumed for the sake of some larger view of reality; it functions as a purely formal rule that, like the restriction of the king in chess to moves of one square only, permits the game to be played one way rather than another. If, moreover, naturalism is correct (however implausible that is), and if consciousness is then an essentially material phenomenon, then there is no reason to believe that our minds, having evolved purely through natural selection, could possibly be capable of knowing what is or is not true about reality as a whole. Our brains may necessarily have equipped us to recognize certain sorts of physical objects around us and enabled us to react to them; but, beyond that, we can assume only that nature will have selected just those behaviors in us most conducive to our survival, along with whatever structures of thought and belief might be essentially or accidentally associated with them, and there is no reason to suppose that such structures—even those that provide us with our notions of what constitutes a sound rational argument—have access to any abstract "truth" about the totality of things. This yields the delightful paradox that, if naturalism is true as a picture of reality, it is necessarily false as a philosophical precept; for no one's belief in the truth of naturalism could correspond to reality except through a shocking coincidence (or, better, a miracle). A still more important consideration, however, is that naturalism, alone among all considered philosophical attempts to describe the shape of reality, is radically insufficient in its explanatory range. The one thing of which it can give no account, and which its most fundamental principles make it entirely impossible to explain at all, is nature's very existence. For existence is most definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.
These are all matters for later, however. All I want to say here is that none of this makes atheism untenable in any final sense. It may be perfectly "rational" to embrace absurdity; for, if the universe does not depend upon any transcendent source, then there is no reason to accord the deliverances of reason any particular authority in the first place, because what we think of as rationality is just the accidental residue of physical processes: good for helping us to acquire food, power, or sex but probably not very reliable in the realm of ideas. In a sense, then, I am assuming the truth of a perfectly circular argument: it makes sense to believe in God if one believes in the real power of reason, because one is justified in believing in reason if one believes in God. Or, to phrase the matter in a less recursive form, it makes sense to believe in both reason and God, and it may make a kind of nonsensical sense to believe in neither, but it is ultimately contradictory to believe in one but not the other. An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith, a triumphant trust in the absurdity of all things. But most of us already know this anyway. If there is no God, then of course the universe is ultimately absurd, in the very precise sense that it is irreducible to any more comprehensive "equation." It is glorious, terrible, beautiful, horrifying—all of that—but in the end it is also quite, quite meaningless. The secret of a happy life then is either not to notice or not to let it bother one overly much. A few blithe spirits even know how to rejoice at the thought.
There have been atheists in every age, of course, but much of modern Western atheism is something quite novel in human history: not mere personal unbelief, and not merely the eccentric doctrine of one or another small philosophical sect, but a conscious ideological, social, and philosophical project, with a broad popular constituency—a cause, a dogma, a metaphysics, a system of values. Many modern atheists object to that description, of course, but only because they are deceiving themselves. When it first arose, however, like any new creed, modern atheism had to win its converts from other adherences; and so its earliest apostles were persons who had for the most part been formed by a culture absolutely soaked in the language, images, ideas, and sentiments of belief. All of them had at least some understanding not only of the nature of religious claims but of the pathos of faith. No matter how much the new convert may have hated his or her native religion, a complete ignorance of its guiding ideas or of its affects and motives was all but impossible. And this remained the case until only fairly recently. Now, however, we have arrived at an odd juncture in our cultural history. There has sprung up a whole generation of confident, even strident atheist proselytizers who appear to know almost nothing about the religious beliefs they abominate, apart from a few vague and gauzily impressionistic daubs or aquarelle washes, and who seem to have no real sense of what the experience of faith is like or of what its rationales might be. For the most part, they seem not even to know that they do not know. It is common now for atheist polemicists (A. C. Grayling is a particularly dazzling example here) to throw off extraordinarily sure and contemptuous pronouncements about the beliefs or motivations or intellectual habits of Christians or of religious persons in general, only to end up demonstrating an almost fantastic ignorance not only of remarkably elementary religious tenets, but of the most rudimentary psychology of belief. And, in general, what is most astonishing about the recent new atheist bestsellers has not been the patent flimsiness of their arguments—as I have noted, they are not aimed at an audience likely to notice or to care—but the sheer lack of intellectual curiosity they betray.
This is not a very terrible indictment, I suppose. No one is obliged in the abstract to be curious about religious claims. Still, though, if one is going to go to all the trouble of writing a book about the deficiencies of religious ideas, one should probably also go to the trouble of first learning what those ideas are. The major religions do, after all, boast some very sophisticated and subtle philosophical and spiritual traditions, and the best way for the enterprising infidel to avoid recapitulating arguments that have been soundly defeated in the past is to make some effort to understand those traditions. The physicist Victor Stenger, for instance, wrote a book not long ago with the subtitle How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Had he only inquired, any decently trained philosopher with a knowledge of the history of metaphysics, ontology, and modal logic could have warned him of the catastrophic category error in that phrase—suggesting as it does a fundamental misunderstanding not only of the word "God" but of the word "science" as well—but apparently he did not inquire, and as a consequence the book he wrote turned out to be just a long non sequitur based on a conceptual confusion and a logical mistake. Or consider Richard Dawkins: he devoted several pages of The God Delusion to a discussion of the "Five Ways" of Thomas Aquinas but never thought to avail himself of the services of some scholar of ancient and mediaeval thought who might have explained them to him, perhaps while strolling beside the somberly gliding Thames on some long, lustrous Oxford afternoon. As a result, he not only mistook the Five Ways for Thomas's comprehensive statement on why we should believe in God, which they most definitely are not, but ended up completely misrepresenting the logic of every single one of them, and at the most basic levels: Not knowing the scholastic distinction between primary and secondary causality, for instance, he imagined that Thomas's talk of a "first cause" referred to the initial temporal causal agency in a continuous temporal series of discrete causes. He thought that Thomas's logic requires the universe to have had a temporal beginning, which Thomas explicitly and repeatedly made clear is not the case. He anachronistically mistook Thomas's argument from universal natural teleology for an argument from apparent "Intelligent Design" in nature. He thought that Thomas's proof from universal "motion" concerned only physical movement in space, "local motion," rather than the ontological movement from potency to act. He mistook Thomas's argument from degrees of transcendental perfection for an argument from degrees of quantitative magnitude, which by definition have no perfect sum. (Admittedly, those last two are a bit difficult for modern persons, but he might have asked all the same.) As for Dawkins's own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God's existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.
Now, none of this is to say that, had either man taken the time to understand the ideas against which he imagined he was contending, he would not have rejected them all the same. The Five Ways, if properly understood, are far richer and more interesting than Dawkins grasps, but they are certainly not irresistibly persuasive (nor are they intended to be). While it is usually imprudent for any scholar to stray too intrepidly outside the boundaries of his or her expertise, at least without a trained guide, there is no reason why a scientist committed to some form of philosophical naturalism, who is as willing to learn as to pontificate, should not enter the debate. Not that, at the moment, there is any real public debate about belief in God worth speaking of. There is scarcely even a public conversation in any meaningful sense. At present, the best we seem able to manage is a war of assertions and recriminations, and for the most part each side is merely talking past the other. And the new atheists have yet to make a contribution of any weight whatsoever. If one could conclusively show that the philosophical claims the major religions make about the nature and reality of God were fundamentally incoherent or demonstrably false, that would be a significant achievement; but if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting. For the sake of harmony, I for one am more than willing to acknowledge that the God described by the new atheists definitely does not exist; but, to be perfectly honest, that is an altogether painless concession to make.
Excerpted from THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD by David Bentley Hart. Copyright © 2013 David Bentley Hart. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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PART ONE God, Gods, and the World....................
ONE "God" Is Not a Proper Name.................... 13
TWO Pictures of the World.................... 46
PART TWO Being, Consciousness, Bliss....................
THREE Being (Sat).................... 87
FOUR Consciousness (Chit).................... 152
FIVE Bliss (Ananda).................... 238
PART THREE The Reality of God....................
SIX Illusion and Reality.................... 293
Bibliographical Postscript.................... 343