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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • keddaw

    Good post.

    Kind of reminds me of Dawkin’s comments about a Deistic god, an argument can be made for it but it has no interaction with the universe and certainly no special place for humanity so it would be a purely academic discussion.

    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.

    This reminds me of quantum physics – the wave particle duality of the very small has a very similar effect on me.

    Their arguments are obviously self-defeating and I have no idea why they cannot see it: “God is beyond human comprehension”, “Some knowledge can only be gained through practice”

    These two statements seem mutually exclusive, assuming the second one refers to some knowledge of god.

    Anyway, keep chipping away at the believers and apologists alike.

  • Herb

    If your god did not exist, how would the Universe be different? This is a question believers should know how to answer.

  • http://www.nullifidian.net/ nullifidian
  • John

    Herb:

    If your god did not exist, how would the Universe be different? This is a question believers should know how to answer.

    Indeed. It was that question more than any other that led me away from theism.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The logical conclusion of this process is this, what’s called apophatic theology

    Where “logical” means “illogical.” But I guess every statement about the divine should be paradoxical.

    it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music.

    Or a great act of stupidity.

  • paradoctor

    “Apophatic” equals “theistic agnostic”; an apophatic believes nothing about God, but _wants_ to believe.

    As for “losing sight of this apophatic vision”; you cannot lose sight of what was not in your field of vision in the first place.

  • http://panicon4july.blogspot.com/ Will E.

    I read Armstrong’s “A History of God” when it came out (I was a religion major back then) and was quite impressed with her “history” but was always unsure of her obvious enthusiasm for mysticism and liberal theology. She even stated that some atheists were more “authentically religious” than conventional believers. That was confusing.

    As I read more in atheist thought over the years I trusted her less and less, and when I saw her speak at my university I tried to engage her in a chat about such things afterword but she seemed uninterested. She sees some kind of good in “authentic religion” and lambasts fundamentalists of all stripes as “false religion,” but she doesn’t see the ultimate truth: all religion is false; “authentic religion” is a contradiction. The scales fell from my eyes the day I realized that.

  • velkyn

    I’ve always found it entertaining when a theist insists that “ooh, we can’t understand/know God” but then turns right around and describes what God is. If you can’t know God, you can’t even know that it is unknowable.

    This sounds like just like one more god of the gaps argument, but now god is all woowoo vague nonsense.

  • NoAstronomer

    The god Armstrong and Bunting describe is not a ‘god of the gaps’, their god is a gap. A nothing.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    And another one out of the park, Ebon.

    Another problem I have with “certain forms of knowledge only come with practice”: Why is it that different practitioners come up with such wildly different “knowledge”? How can it even count as “knowledge” if it only happens in your own head, can’t be checked against reality, and varies radically to the point of complete contradiction from person to person?

    By what possible useful definition of the word “knowledge” does this qualify? How is this “knowledge” anything other than a hunch at most, and an emotion at least? Not to denigrate emotion… but it doesn’t exactly qualify as “knowledge.”

    Oh, and Reginald: You made milk come out of my nose. Well done.

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    A long time ago God was everywhere and people understood. Then came the theologians, who saw that this was a very bad state of affairs. “We can’t have just any Tom, Dick or Harry understanding about God,” they said. “God is mysterious and ineffable. He’s far too complex to be comprehended by the hoi-poloi.” So they invented theology, a discipline expressly designed to take something simple and cover it in multiple layers of obfuscation.

    In these more enlightened days the layering of vacuous theology can be peeled back, sheet by sheet, but it’s a laborious and uninspiring process – because when at last the final layer is lifted up, it appears that God has long since slipped away, if he was ever there in the first place.

  • exrelayman

    Anent your God (being aprophatic)
    Afraid my response is apathetic.

    The debil make me do it!

  • Alex Weaver

    Maybe this is just the ASD, but their arguments fall into the general category of statements which, when I attempt to process them like “normal” verbal-semantic input, produce a mental effect the subjective experience of which invites comparison with “feeding a metal lamp post into a woodchipper.”

  • Steven Carr

    If you cannot tell me what kind of God I believe in then you are an ignorant atheist.

    If I cannot tell you what kind of God I believe in, then I am a very sophisticated theologian.

  • Pingback: You Can’t Define What You Can’t Define | Stefan Powys

  • Brian M

    “Why is it that different practitioners come up with such wildly different “knowledge”? How can it even count as “knowledge” if it only happens in your own head, can’t be checked against reality, and varies radically to the point of complete contradiction from person to person?

    By what possible useful definition of the word “knowledge” does this qualify? How is this “knowledge” anything other than a hunch at most, and an emotion at least? Not to denigrate emotion… but it doesn’t exactly qualify as “knowledge.”"

    Greta…thank you for this discussion: There is an annoying but active poster on another athism blog who spouts mystical b.s. His main schtick is that the God of the fundamenatlists and the bible is not REALLY God. God is some vague indwelling feeling or other he has never been able to coherently describe but that makes him qualified to firmly state the existence of said true God. Why a vague internalized “feeling” constitutes proof is something JohnC has never been able to explain, but…

  • John Nernoff

    If “God” is beyond powers of description than the word “God” cannot be defined, characterized or explained. It remains totally empty of meaning with no referent. It cannot and should not be used in any discussion or claim.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “If the existence of a thing is indistinguishable from its non-existence, we say that thing does not exist. This is called Reason.” – Yahzi Coyote

    One of my favorite quotes by me.

    It is truly remarkable how people who proclaim that God is unknowable can write so many words about knowing God…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    The creationist spewage in this thread has been cleaned up. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  • Erika

    “certain forms of knowledge only come with practice” is quite the insidious phrase because it is just a little off from being true. The phrase plays on the dual meaning of “knowledge”. “Knowledge” can mean “truth” or it can mean “understanding”.

    It is true that “certain forms of understanding only come with practice”, but I believe that I am not the only one here who thinks that it is not true that “certain forms of truth only come with practice”.

  • Scotlyn

    The creationist spewage in this thread has been cleaned up

    Ebon, when your spewage problems get out of hand, may I recommend that in future you use a sceptic tank?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    *laugh* Point well taken, Scotlyn.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Check out this parodical review of Armstrong’s book by John Crace:
    The Case for God by Karen Armstrong

  • mikespeir

    Reginald, from your link:

    Skipping through the Kabbalah, introduced by the Madonna of Lourdes and Mercy (1459 – )….

    Let’s just say I shouldn’t have had food in my mouth when I read that.

  • Stutz

    Quote:
    “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.”

    What a perfect paragraph! This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say about wishy-washy, New-Age-y, theological, God-of-the-gaps, deistic God-belief for a long time, and you’ve worded it nearly flawlessly. “The compulsion to slap the label “God” on something, even if it is a philosophical abstraction with no content…” So many people who wouldn’t remotely understand the term “apophatic theists” are nevertheless perfectly described by this. You don’t have to be a theologian to think this kind of thing. The belief that all religions lead to God, the belief that Jesus is a happy feeling inside, the belief that religion is “a different way of knowing” (a layman version of the non-overlapping magesteria argument): all of these are types of apophatic belief, I would argue.

    I think this issue is important because it’s sort of the last stumbling block that hinders people on their journey away from theism. The Incredible Shrinking God (Shadow & Vapor) will retreat and retreat until it reaches this point, and I think it’s important to address this last bastion of illogic.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X