The God of Shadow and Vapor

In April, I wrote a piece chastising Madeline Bunting for her willful invocation of the Courtier’s Reply, in which she attacks atheists for criticizing the beliefs actually held and practiced by billions of people, rather than the beliefs of a tiny minority of theologians and pundits like herself.

But let it not be said that we shy from a challenge. In this post, I’ll take up the issue of religion as it is held by Bunting and others of like mind.

Here’s how she defines her own beliefs:

Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it’s a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: “In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice.” It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.

…But the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Bunting quotes Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, who holds similar views:

The reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience…. The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic – it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music.

As I wrote in “One More Burning Bush“, the record shows that, throughout recorded history, the gods have been shrinking. They started out as very tangible beings, present in the world, continually performing miracles. But with time and the advance of knowledge, every substantive, testable claim about them has been gradually chipped away, until we arrive at a god whose existence is indistinguishable from his nonexistence. The logical conclusion of this process is this, what’s called apophatic theology: a god whose believers make no positive claims about him at all.

I have to admit, I’ve never had much affection for incoherentist arguments for atheism. The notion of “God” as believed in by most Western religions is perfectly comprehensible to me. I may differ with theists about whether there is anything in the real world that matches their description, but I can understand what it would mean for such a being to exist. But with believers in apophatic theology, this criticism has more merit. Their belief does not seem to have any content, indeed does not seem to be a belief about anything at all. It’s the philosophical equivalent of the empty set. Can these people even explain what it would mean for their belief to be true, versus for it to be false?

This is a god of shadow and vapor. Advance towards it, and like a shadow, it disappears; try to grasp it, and all you grasp is insubstantial mist. While all gods share the distinction of not existing in the real world, this god seems to have the unique quality of not existing even in its own believers’ minds. If they don’t hold any positive beliefs about God, then what exactly is it that they believe?

Armstrong again:

….In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.

The problem I’ve always had with statements like this is that our human minds, limited though they may be, are the only tools we have. If there is something that truly cannot be comprehended by the human mind, then it is pointless to talk about it or believe in it. The phrase “statements that point beyond the limitations of the mind” is just a string of words without meaning. By definition, any such statement would be indistinguishable from nonsense and gibberish. (Bunting’s claim that “certain forms of knowledge only come with practice” sounds clever, but anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds will see that it’s nonsensical: If we know nothing about God, how can we know what practices are appropriate?)

The only real difference between Bunting, Armstrong and other apophatic theists on one hand, and atheists on the other, is that they feel compelled to slap the label “God” on something, even if that something is a philosophical abstraction with no content. And that’s fine if that’s what they want, I really couldn’t care less – until they start insisting, inexplicably, that belief in this nullity is a prerequisite for virtue; or worse, that this is what all theists really believe. Both of these claims are transparently false, and when they try to defend them, the apophatic apologists look just as disconnected from reality as the deity they claim to believe in.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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